The Indian Ocean Base Race Continues Apace

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

Indian and Chinese officials sign files as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping look on after the two leaders held talks on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Qingdao on June 9, 2018.

Indian and Chinese officials sign files as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping look on after the two leaders held talks on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Qingdao on June 9, 2018.

A flurry of meetings scheduled for mid-2018 have seemed to demonstrate a rapprochement between China and India, following a tense stand-off on the Doklam Plateau between troops from the two countries in late 2017. In the central Chinese city of Wuhan, China’s President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi held an “informal summit” on 26-27 April 2018, which was intended to “reset” the bilateral relationship. In June 2018, Xi and Modi meet again on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Qingdao. Then, in July 2018, the two leaders will meet once more in Johannesburg, South Africa for the 10th BRICS summit.

However, in the maritime realm, the rivalry between China and India continues apace. As previously reported here, 2016 saw the establishment of a Chinese naval base in Djibouti, while China acquired a 99-year lease for the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota in 2017 and India riposted with its own modest base agreement in the Seychelles. Just a few months into 2018, the momentum has continued, with numerous more announcements of port agreements and base openings in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) and the Western Pacific. These developments serve to demonstrate that, though there may have been some progress made in China-India relations at the Wuhan summit, there are very real geopolitical concerns that will continue to generate tensions between the two Asian powers.

In April 2018, the Australian media was rife with reports that China is establishing a naval base in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, less than 2,000 kilometres from the Australian coast. Both the authorities in China and Vanuatu have denied that there are any such plans, and it has been noted that China may simply be investigating the potential to establish a facility to monitor spacecraft and facilitate lunar rocket tests. Such a facility could also be used for intelligence gathering but would certainly not serve the same function in the Western Pacific as China’s naval base in Djibouti is meant to serve in the IOR.

However, India is poised to exert greater control over the western end of the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most vital shipping routes and a conduit between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Near the entrance to the Strait, a series of naval and airbases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands would allow India to severely limit China’s access to resources in the event of a large-scale military conflict. However, the Indonesian authorities announced in May 2018 their intention to grant the Indian Navy use of revamped port facilities in Sabang, an Indonesian island 710 kilometres southeast of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India has yet to seek a presence on the eastern end of the Strait of Malacca, but access to Sabang will allow India to further assert its influence in the IOR.

This follows the announcement in February 2018 that the Indian Navy had gained access to Duqm, a strategic port on the southern coast of Oman. Ostensibly, this agreement on logistics and the use of dry dock facilities at the port is intended to allow India to play an increased role in counter-piracy efforts near the Gulf of Aden. However, it is very likely that the outreach to Oman was motivated by a desire to counter what Indian defence planners and strategists frequently refer to as China’s “string of pearls” policy, a geopolitical strategy according to which China allegedly seeks to contain India and challenge Indian dominance in the IOR through a network of naval and airbases. In this context, China leasing the port of Hambantota is a provocative move, given that it is located less than 500 kilometres from the southern coast of India, but it is not the most ideal way to contain India: with an Indian presence in Duqm in the west and Sabang in the east, India has a strong hand at both the chokepoints to the IOR.

China and India’s Maritime Footprint in the Indian Ocean (Tuneer Mukherjee, "China’s Maritime Quest in the Indian Ocean: New Delhi’s Options", The Diplomat, 24 April 2018).

China and India’s Maritime Footprint in the Indian Ocean (Tuneer Mukherjee, “China’s Maritime Quest in the Indian Ocean: New Delhi’s Options“, The Diplomat, 24 April 2018).

Regardless of whether China is pursuing an elaborate strategy of geopolitical containment or simply seeking privileged access to developing markets, Chinese officials have been just as busy as their Indian counterparts thus far this year. In May 2018, Chinese authorities reported that they had made good progress in negotiations with Tanzania regarding the latter’s proposed mega port at Bagamoyo. Expected to become one of the largest ports in Africa, access to the facilities for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would strengthen the Chinese presence in the western IOR. However, without more detail on the Tanzanian-Chinese negotiations, it is difficult to say whether Bagamoyo will upset the balance of power in the western IOR; as much as Duqm can balance the Chinese presence in Djibouti, the Indian military presence in the Seychelles is much more limited.

Evidently, there is some disconnect between the levels of “high politics” and “low politics” in China-India relations. Even as Xi and Modi are apparently building a good rapport in their high-level discussions in Wuhan and Qingdao, the race is on among Chinese and Indian officials to gain the upper hand in the IOR. This background tension presents a risk to peace and security between the two countries; for example, territorial disputes over India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as South Tibet, could escalate into another open confrontation as both sides seek to exploit rich deposits of mineral resources there. If the rivalry between China and India is to be set aside, much more must be done at the working level — and in haste — to improve mutual trust and build confidence in areas of security cooperation.

Posted in China, English, India, Paul Pryce, Sea Powers, Security Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems and Artificial Intelligence in Future Conflicts

by Patrick Truffer. He has been working in the Swiss Armed Forces for more than 15 years, holds a bachelor’s degree in public affairs from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH Zurich), and a master’s degree in international relations from the Free University of Berlin.

According to critics, mankind will be a huge step closer to self-extinction in the not-too-distant future. More specifically, this work could be carried out by lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) equipped with artificial intelligence (AI). But how realistic such apocalyptic future scenarios really are? What is the current status of LAWS and how likely is an international ban on such weapon systems?

More or less unnoticed by the public, systems with weak AI are evolving: they improve the results of search queries on the Internet, are used in speech recognition or machine translation, and such systems will also be used to control drones and vehicles, to increase efficiency in logistics, in medicine and in many other areas in the near future.

Through the use of “deep learning neural networks“, the progress in the field of AI has been remarkable in recent years. Put simply, this approach first extracts abstract solution strategies from an extensive data collection on a specific problem. The solution strategies are then supplemented, expanded and improved using data known and unknown to the system – comparable to training. Finally, the perfected solution strategies are applied to specific problems. [1]

This approach can also be found in systems used in the field of security. For example, there are pilot projects for the autonomous evaluation by surveillance cameras that strike an alarm in the event of “conspicuous behaviour” (Jefferson Chase, “Facial Recognition Surveillance Test Extended at Berlin Train Station“, Deutsche Welle, 15.12.2017). Therefore it is not surprising that armed forces are also interested in these new technologies.

Theoretically, the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System CIWS could be operated autonomous whiteout a man in or on the loop.

Theoretically, the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System CIWS could be operated autonomous whiteout a man in or on the loop.

Automatic weapons systems have been in use in the armed forces for decades, but with operators always involved in the detection, identification and selection of targets or in the final decision on the use of (lethal) force. In autonomous systems, on the other hand, these processes take place almost without human interference. Such systems do not have “free will”, but they are able to carry out certain tasks independently, without human interaction, under unforeseeable conditions, on the basis of their rules of engagement (Paul Scharre, “Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War“, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018, 27ff). Theoretically, this is already the case with some defence systems, such as the Aegis Combat System, the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System CIWS, and modern air defence systems [2]. Currently, more than 30 states have such autonomous defence systems. However, this excludes drones that are still used operationally, because they are remote-controlled and not autonomous, at least in the decisive phase of the use of force (Scharre, “Army of None”, 4).

The defence industry is advancing research in the field of LAWS in which AI systems will play a decisive role. Test flights conducted in 2013-2015 demonstrated the capabilities of Northrop Grumman X-47B to take off and land autonomously from an aircraft carrier and to carry out air refuelling autonomously. Autonomous systems play an important role in the U.S. Third Offset Strategy, which aims to secure the technological lead of the U.S. armed forces in the long term. Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Office of Naval Research and the U.S. Air Force have been experimenting for years with the use of swarms of low-cost autonomous microdrones. Initial approaches to such systems have already been tested, even if they have not yet been given a kill order. In 2016, the U.S. Air Force released 103 Perdix micro-drones from an airplane, which then went autonomously into formation and independently carried out various small missions; the associated video was released in early 2017. According to Stuart J. Russell, a British AI scientist at the University of California, the U.S. Armed Forces would be able to cost-effectively produce swarms of such drones within 18 months. When produced serially, micro-drones are expected to cost between 30 and 100 U.S. dollars apiece (Andreas Mink, “Wie Roboter uns töten werden“, NZZ am Sonntag, 02.12.2017).

Loitering Munition also has a high degree of autonomy. It is a type of guided weapon that is initially launched without a specific target, can orbit over a target area for a long time, and then uses its sensors to attack the target. This includes, for example, the IAI Harop, which comes in the form of a stealth drone. It can autonomously eliminate radar sources from its waiting position above the target area, in which it can stay for 6 hours. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) had exported the Harop to Azerbaijan, where it was used in the Nagorno-Karabakh region for the first time – albeit not as originally planned. The device hit an Armenian bus with militia soldiers who were being transported to the contested region. Seven soldiers were killed (Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Israeli-Made Kamikaze Drone Spotted in Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict“, Washington Post, 05.04.2016).

This shows that the U.S. is not the only one conducting research in the field of LAWS. With the Taranis, an autonomous combat drone from BAE Systems, the UK pursues a similar demonstrator program. The findings will be incorporated into the Franco-British Future Combat Air System together with the equivalent French project nEUROn, also involving the Swiss RUAG Aerospace. In February 2017, the French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that AI systems will play an increasingly important role for France in the development of new military technologies. France will to ensure that the connection to the U.S. and the UK will not be lost in this area (Jean-Yves Le Drian, “L’intelligence artificielle: un enjeu se souveraineté nationale’, in Intelligence artificielle: des libertés individuelles à la sécurité nationale, Eurogroup Consulting, 2017, 11–24). Chinese President Xi Jinping, for his part, wants to transform China into a “superpower of artificial intelligence” by 2030, with massive investments (Mink, “Wie Roboter uns töten werden”). Similar to the UK and France, but still lagging behind technologically, China is researching an autonomous reconnaissance and combat drone, the AVIC 601-S Sharp Sword. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also recognised the importance of AI systems. In September 2017, he said that whoever would become the leading nation in AI would achieve world domination (“‘Whoever Leads in AI Will Rule the World’: Putin to Russian Children on Knowledge Day“, RT International, 01.07.2017). Despite lagging significant behind the USA and China, Russia has intensified its development of autonomous systems (Vincent Boulanin and Maaike Verbruggem, “Mapping the Development of Autonomy in Weapon Systems“, SIPRI, November 2017, 97f).

In formation (from right to left): Dassault's nEUROn, Rafale et Falcon 7X.

In formation (from right to left): Dassault’s nEUROn, Rafale et Falcon 7X.

The military use of autonomous systems and the proliferation of the corresponding technologies are associated with some risks. At the strategic level, it should not be underestimated that the autonomous systems lack the ability to understand own actions in the overall context. LAWS will be used with a set of rules, which will define their actions. However, the context of a conflict can change rapidly. In such cases, the stubborn observance of preassigned rules, the lack of anticipation, empathy and gut feeling can lead to unforeseen or unwanted escalations. Every soldier knows that, in the course of a mission, the command received at the beginning may not coincide anymore with the original intention of the superior. A soldier must be able to adapt himself to the situation, so that the intention of the superior can be implemented at all times and all unforeseeable circumstances. The absence of this consideration of the overall context can lead to instability at the international level. If LAWS had already existed during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a U.S. policy might have ensured that Soviet ships (including submarines) would have been forcibly prevented from crossing the blockade line if necessary. A Soviet rule of engagement would probably have meant that the sinking of a strategic submarine would have to be answered with a regionally limited nuclear retaliation. If both systems would have begun to interact with each other uncontrollably with the respective guidelines, for example because the U.S. system detects a violation of the blockade line (whether rightfully or not), this would have lead to a catastrophe at a breakneck speed. [3]

Interestingly, such considerations do not play a decisive role in the discussion on an international ban on LAWS. The reason for this is that the efforts to ban LAWS are being driven almost exclusively by NGOs active in the field of human rights and international humanitarian law. This creates two different camps which demand a ban for different reasons:

  • Consequentialists fear negative effects on the use of LAWS because these systems will not be able to comply with the principles of international humanitarian law. These include, for example, the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, the principle of proportionality and the prevention of unnecessary suffering. The problem with this argumentation is that if LAWS were to violate the principles of international humanitarian law, their use would already be prohibited today – an additional ban is not necessary. On the contrary, such a ban would benefit those states which do not recognise international law and would therefore not comply with this ban either. Also unanswered is the question of how to proceed from the point of view of the consequentialists, if the progressive technology would enable a much more precise use of force through the use of LAWS, which could incapacitate the opponent in a much more targeted and selective way. [4] Wouldn’t LAWS have to be used as an outright priority in such a case?
  • Deontologists argue that the use of LAWS is unethical regardless of its effects, as is the case with torture, for example. Decisions on life and death would have to be made exclusively by people, for only they are in a position to morally weigh up such a decision in its full scope. Even if LAWS could reduce the number of deaths in wars, their use would violate human dignity (Scharre, “Army of None”, 285ff). The problem with this argument is that it is completely unrealistic – the days of a fight in which one human soldier faces another are long gone. Where is the dignity in being mowed down by a machine gun, shredded by a bomb, or killed by an infection? In wars, there is no right to a dignified death. In this way, deontologists do not criticize LAWS, but wars per se.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which has been active since 2013 and is coordinated by Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch and supported by a number of NGOs, belongs to the camp of deontologists. The campaign is committed to a “pre-emptive and comprehensive ban on the development, production, and use of” LAWS. Although the campaign does not (yet) insist on a general ban on AI in weapon systems or remote-controlled or automated weapon systems in armed forces, it demands that such systems must in any case be controlled by humans.

In early April, the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) formed by the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) addressed the topic for the second time. However, it would be premature to conclude on the success of the campaign – the GGE is nothing more than a discussion forum without a negotiating mandate. A first decisive hurdle will be whether a generally accepted definition of LAWS can be formulated. Although 26 countries currently support a ban, with the exception of China, these countries are not technological pioneers in the field of LAWS. With few exceptions, these states seem to be more interested in restricting the capacity of more powerful states to act than in humanitarian or even ethical factors. This will make it difficult to get the USA, Russia, UK and France, all of which explicitly opposed such a ban, on board.

Even if, in the long term, the international community of states could impose such a ban, the genie can hardly be pushed back into the bottle. The developments that form the basis for LAWS are not military but civilian. The key to this is the software development, which is largely independent of future use and the eventually chosen hardware platform. The ability of an autonomous system to move around in an unknown building, to sketch and identify rooms, equipment and people inside, can be used positively in the hands of rescue forces, but negatively in the hands of terrorists (Scharre, “Army of None”, 121ff).

According to Frank Kendall, former U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, the main threat posed by LAWS is not the application by armed forces, but the uncontrollable proliferation in which virtually anyone can access the corresponding technologies and use them for their ends (Scharre, “Army of None”, 120). [5] What a future with killer drones in the wrong hands could look like was impressively demonstrated last November in the video “Slaughterbots”, which caused quite a stir.

Automatic weapon systems have been a reality in the armed forces for decades, although always reserving the ultimate power of decision to humans. LAWS go one step further in this respect: they have the ability to carry out certain tasks independently and without human interaction under unforeseeable conditions. This is not a very distant vision of the future – simple autonomous systems in clearly defined fields of application, for example in air defence, theoretically already exist today. But progressive development and use of LAWS do not necessarily have to end in an apocalypse, although the challenges of such weapon systems in terms of ethics, international stability and proliferation are also considerable. A ban on LAWS not only tries to push the genie back into the bottle, which will hardly be possible, but also prevents the benefit of potential opportunities. It cannot be ruled out that LAWS could make a much more targeted and precise use of force possible. Taking into account the development efforts for the underlying technology, not driven primarily by the military field, and the interests of the states involved in the discussion on a LAWS ban, a comprehensive international ban on LAWS seems rather unlikely.

[1] AlphaGo, the AI system that could beat the best human Go player, was originally fed and trained with data from 30 million Go games played by people (Scharre, “Army of None”, 125f). Following video series presents a good introduction to “deep learning neural networks”: Part 1 – “But What is a Neural Network?”; Part 2 – “Gradient Descent, How Neural Networks Learn”; Part 3 – “What Is Backpropagation Really Doing”.
[2] Theoretically, because these systems have integrated human controls despite their autonomous capabilities (for example, with a decision on fire release).
[3] This example is not so far-fetched: on October 27, 1962, the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Randolph, together with 11 destroyers, forced the Soviet submarine B-59 to surface. To this end they used depth charges with a small explosive force (roughly equivalent to a hand grenade). Because the submarine could not maintain contact with Moscow, the authorisation to use the 15 kiloton nuclear warhead (equivalent to the explosive force of the Hiroshima bomb), which was carried by the submarine unbeknownst to the U.S. Navy, was delegated to the commander of the submarine, the political officer and the fleet commander. Under the impression of being sunk by the U.S. ships, the submarine commander, with the consent of the political officer, gave the order to fire the nuclear torpedo and thus destroy all U.S. ships in the vicinity in one fell swoop. Finally, the fleet commander was the only one who suppressed the execution of the command (Scharre, “Army of None”, 310; “The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: Materials from the 40th Anniversary Conference“, The National Security Archive, 11.10.2002).
[4] According to Ronald C. Arkin, professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and U.S. scientist in the field of robotics, this is quite feasible (Thompson Chengeta, “Prof. Ron Arkin UN Debate on Autonomous Weapon Systems“, 2016; Ronald C. Arkin, Patrick Ulam, und Brittany Duncan, “An Ethical Governor for Constraining Lethal Action in an Autonomous System“, Defense Technical Information Center, 2009).
[5] The basic software for creating “deep learning neural networks” can already be freely downloaded from the Internet.

Posted in Drones, English, International law, Patrick Truffer, Proliferation, Security Policy, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bashar’s bluff: Damascus cannot challenge the U.S. military in Syria

by Paul Iddon

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with his Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on May 17, 2018.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with his Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on May 17, 2018.

In his May 31 interview with Russia Today, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that his regime will soon focus on dealing with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), outlining two options it has to do so in his view: negotiations or force. He claims that he has already “started opening doors for negotiations”, reasoning the fact that “the majority of them are Syrians”, that “supposedly they like their country” and may prove receptive to this option. However, he added that, if negotiations fail, the Syrian Army will be forced to liberate areas occupied by the SDF — “with the Americans, or without the Americans”.

In light of these comments the U.S. Department of State affirmed that the US will not hesitate to use “necessary and proportionate force” to defend both its forces and its SDF allies.

SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel also told Reuters that such a move “is not a solution that can lead to any result. […] Any military solution, as far as the SDF is concerned, will lead to more losses and destruction and difficulties for the Syrian people.”

Several past examples all conclusively show how swiftly the US can bring force to bear when either its troops or the SDF were threatened by Assad or his Iranian-backed militia allies.

Two US Air Force F-22 Raptors fly over Syria, February 2, 2018. (Photo: Sgt. Colton Elliott / Air National Guard).

Two US Air Force F-22 Raptors fly over Syria, February 2, 2018. (Photo: Sgt. Colton Elliott / Air National Guard).

On August 18, 2016 two Syrian Air Force warplanes attacked US-allied Syrian Kurdish forces in the northeast city of al-Hasakah following violent clashes there between the Kurds and the pro-government National Defence Forces and the Syrian Army. The impact of the bombs were felt by nearby U.S. special forces. Two Syrian warplanes returned the following day, it’s unclear if they were the same ones, for what appeared to be a second bombing attempt only to have to abort their mission after stealthy U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors swooped in to intercept them. The U.S. and Syrian warplanes came within a mile (around 1.5 km) of each other.

Another incident on June 18, 2017 saw a Syrian Su-22 bomber target SDF positions near al-Tabqah only to be promptly shot down by a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet jet – the first time the U.S. shot down an enemy warplane since the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia. The U.S. justified the action as being “in accordance with [the] rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces.”

During the Raqqa campaign, US-backed SDF operating a M1117 Guardian armoured vehicle supplied by the US.

During the Raqqa campaign, US-backed SDF operating a M1117 Guardian armoured vehicle supplied by the US.

On two separates occasions in the same month U.S. Air Force F-15s shot down armed Iranian-made “Shahed 129” drones when they flew into the de-confliction zone around the al-Tanf base near the Jordanian border, where the U.S. trains anti-ISIS fighters, and in the first incident dropped bombs inside that zone. Earlier U.S. airstrikes on May 18, 2017 hit a convoy of pro-regime militiamen moving towards the base’s zone in what was later revealed to have been a misunderstanding.

More recently, last February 7, a large force of pro-regime militiamen and Russian mercenaries backed by armour and artillery attacked an SDF headquarter beside the Euphrates River in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate only to be heavily bombarded by several different US aircraft – ranging from F-15E Strike Eagles and F-22 Raptors to Apache attack helicopters and Reaper drones to enormous B-52 bombers and AC-130 gunships, as well as nearby US Marine-operated artillery guns and rockets – forcing them to retreat in disarray. The attackers suffered significant casualties, many estimates put the figure at over 100, while only a single SDF fighter was wounded and no US personnel harmed.

Taking these precedents into account even a large-scale regime attack against U.S./SDF positions is unlikely to afflict any significant defeat against the U.S. forces in Syria. Aside from the al-Tanf base all the areas in Syria the US has a military presence in are on the east bank of the Euphrates. The way the Euphrates separates northeastern Syrian Kurdish territories and large swathes of Deir ez-Zor from the rest of the country resembles a large moat. While the regime has demonstrated its capability to use Russian-made pontoons — similar to what the Egyptian Army used to cross the Suez Canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War — to cross the Euphrates in the past (see video below), its forces are unlikely capable of moving large numbers of tanks nor mechanized infantry across the river via pontoons or bridges without being interdicted and destroyed by U.S. aircraft. Even if it does manage to target, or even kill, U.S. troops anywhere in Syria, Washington could — and more likely than not would — promptly retaliate by destroying several regime targets across Syria using large numbers of Tomahawk cruise missiles — which neither Russian nor Syrian forces in the country have the capability to shoot down.

Also, it is highly unlikely Damascus could get Moscow’s backing in any attack against the SDF, never mind U.S. troops. Russia has shown on numerous occasions that it seeks to wrap up the conflict in Syria through negotiations now that the regime is no longer directly threatened. Taking on the SDF and risking a wider war against the U.S. could completely compromise this goal.

Damascus’s empty threats against the Israelis and Turks for their respective attacks on Syrian soil also show why this is a likely outcome. The regime has failed to deter Turkey’s significant ground incursions in the northwest, mostly because Russia never seriously opposed them.

While Moscow has publicly rebuked Israel for past airstrikes, it has never intervened or threatened to shoot down Israeli jet fighters over Syria with the advanced air defense systems, or air superiority fighters, it has based in the country. Furthermore, Moscow recently pushed for a deal with Israel for it to allow just regular Syrian forces to retake southern Syria’s border regions, while preventing Iranian-backed militias from deploying to those areas, following the latest round of Israeli airstrikes on May 10 — which were prompted by an Iranian rocket attack targeting the Golan Heights. Russia also made clear, during a visit to the country by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month, that it won’t supply Damascus with long-range S-300 missiles, after threatening to do so in light of US-led airstrikes against targets connected to Syria’s chemical weapons programs last April.

Assad’s veiled threat against the SDF and its U.S. backer is clearly a bluff since he demonstrably possesses no capability to actually challenge the U.S. military in Syria. The likelihood of Moscow giving tacit support to a Syrian offensive against the SDF and the U.S. military is extremely unlikely for aforementioned reasons. Even if Moscow acquiesces to any regime offensive, Damascus would most likely suffer a swift battlefield defeat at the hands of the U.S. military. Ultimately, so long as the U.S. remains in northeast Syria, Damascus will not be able to send in its army and subdue the Kurds once again. With this being the case, Assad only really has one option: to try and compel the U.S. to leave Syria, and regain some form of control over its northeast, and that is his first one, negotiating with the SDF in good faith.

Posted in English, Paul Iddon, Security Policy, Syria | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Syria remains the foremost proving ground for the world’s most powerful armed forces

by Paul Iddon

Two Russian Air Force Su-57s (Photo by Anna Zvereva).

Two Russian Air Force Su-57s (Photo by Anna Zvereva).

For years now Syria has been the foremost proving ground for major military powers to test their equipment in real combat conditions. The first half of 2018 has proven no exception and in fact demonstrates that this trend is as, if not more so, popular as ever.

In May 2018 alone both Israel and Russia separately announced the combat debut of two different fifth-generation stealth fighter-bomber aircraft in Syria within days of each other. While both claims of these respective planes carrying out combat operations in Syria are unverified they are nevertheless worth evaluating.

Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu publicized a video showing Russia’s fifth-generation Su-57 (T-50) stealth fighter-bomber launching what appears to be a Kh-59MK2 long-range subsonic cruise missile (see video on the right), which can deliver a warhead of 700 pounds (almost 320 kg) of explosives at targets over 550 km away. Shoygu claimed the aircraft launched the missile in combat over Syria last February, which coincides with a brief two-day deployment of a pair of stealthy Sukhoi Su-57s to the country.

It remains unclear if the missile Shoygu showed on video was actually fired in Syria at an enemy target. A Syrian source cited by Al Masdar News dubiously claimed that the Su-57s targeted positions belonging to Jaysh Al-Izza (“Army of Glory”) group in the towns of Kafr Zita and Al-Lataminah in the countryside of Hama Governorate.

In a recent article in The Daily Beast, on the other hand, military analyst David Axe outlined several reasons to be extremely skeptical over the Kremlin’s claims of a February test launch, pointing out that Moscow “seems determined to portray its stealth fighters in the best possible light as prospects fade for mass-production of the troubled warplanes.” He notes that the Su-57 “currently lacks many of its planned electronics and sensors and has been cleared to carry only a few different kinds of munitions” and in its public appearances to date has only carried “dummy bombs and missiles that are strictly for display.” Citing experts Axe illustrates that there is nothing in Shoygu’s video presentation to indicate that the missile launch did indeed take place in Syria rather than “some remote air force testing site deep in Russia’s interior.”

While this may well prove the case, Russia has in the past used its deployment in Syria to gauge the effectiveness of its equipment. For example, it has launched several of its long-range 3M-54 Kalibr cruise missiles at targets across Syria since 2015, a missile it hitherto never used in a war zone before (see also Louis Martin-Vézian, “Comprehensive Infographic about the Russian Intervention in Syria — December 2015 Update“,, 08.12.2015). The Syrian conflict also saw the combat debut of the flashy Su-34 Fullback fighter-bomber and marked the first time many of Russia’s strategic bombers – such as the Tupolev Tu-95 Bears and Tu-160 Blackjacks – conducted long-range bombing runs, flying directly from Russia, over an actual war zone.

The military operation in Syria certainly required certain funds […]. Some 33 billion rubles were earmarked in the Ministry’s 2015 budget for military exercises. We simply retargeted these funds to support our group in Syria, and there is hardly a better way of training and perfecting combat skills than under real combat conditions. […] I am sure these costs are reasonable and necessary, because this was a chance to test everything in combat, find faults and rectify them. — Vladimir Putin, “Meeting with Russian Armed Forces Service Personnel“, President of Russia, 17.03.2016.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is on record saying that the best training for Russia’s armed forces is actual combat, the same applies for the equipment those forces have to rely upon.

The symbolic projection of power that comes with using such weapon systems is another factor, which is one reason why flying Su-57s to Syria for a mere two days and firing hitherto unused missiles at unspecified targets is a worthy endeavour in Moscow’s view, if that is in fact what they did.

“We are flying the F-35 all over the Middle East,” announced the Commander of the Israeli Air Force (IAF), Major General Amikam Norkin, during the IAF Senior Air Force Conference in Herzliya last May. “It has become part of our operational capabilities,” he added. “We are the first to attack using the F-35 in the Middle East and have already attacked twice on different fronts.” Norkin made these comments while displaying a photograph showing an F-35I or “Adir” (Hebrew for “Mighty One” or simply “Awesome”) flying high above the skies of the Lebanese capital Beirut.

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper pointed out that the display “is certainly a deterrent value” against Israel’s numerous adversaries across the region, namely Hezbollah and Iran, but nevertheless added that it “comes off like an inordinate swagger” and went on to speculate that it was “perhaps also an attempt to rehabilitate the IAF’s image following the downing of an F-16 by the Syrian air defenses during the previous escalation of hostilities with Iran and Syria, in February.”

While Norkin did not mention which two fronts the F-35Is saw combat one of them was doubtlessly Syria. On May 11, Israel bombed no fewer than 30 sites believed to form part of the military infrastructure used by Iranian paramilitaries and their Shiite militia proxies in the country. IAF F-35s likely participated, but in what capacity remains unclear.

Israeli Air Force F-35I 'Adir' flying over Beirut.

Israeli Air Force F-35I “Adir” flying over Beirut.

Israel’s single squadron of F-35s became combat operational in December 2017. As per tradition Israel’s variant of the plane has been outfitted with Israeli avionics and technology, most noticeably a domestically-developed command, control, communications, computer and intelligence (C4I) system.

Writing in Popular Mechanics Kyle Mizokami reasonably speculates that the F-35Is likely took part in the May 11 strike either by participating in the extensive bombing of the numerous targets or using “its advanced sensors to identify targets on the ground for other warplanes to attack, then coordinated the entire attack via [the] airplane’s C4I system.” In other words, the F-35I may have operated as a stealthy mini-AWACS platform that oversaw the numerous attacks across the Syrian battlefield below.

The United States (as well as France and the United Kingdom)
At 4am on the morning of April 14 the United States, France and the United Kingdom launched 105 air and ship-launched cruise missiles against three sites connected to the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons program in retaliation over a suspected regime gas attack in the town of Douma near Damascus the week before. The British and French launched Storm Shadow cruise missiles / SCALP EG while the Americans launched barrages of their Tomahawks.

B-1 Lancer bomber preparing to takeoff to launch JASSM cruise missiles at a Syrian chemical research facility on the night of April 13, 2018.

B-1 Lancer bomber preparing to takeoff to launch JASSM cruise missiles at a Syrian chemical research facility on the night of April 13, 2018.

In addition to the Tomahawks, however, the US also launched 19 subsonic AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile) cruise missiles from B-1 Lancer bombers, flying from the al-Udeid airbase in Qatar, for the first time ever in combat. The JASSM’s were all directed at the Barzeh scientific research centre in Damascus.

As with the Russians the United States, France and the United Kingdom seized the opportunity to live fire test their new missile. The JASSM entered service back in 2006 and has a range of 370 km and can deliver a 1,000 pound warhead (almost 455 kg). An extended version of the missile, simply called the JASSM-ER, can hit targets from over 900 km away. However, in the Syria strike, the US used only the original JASSM. The massive April strike was also the first time France fired their naval variant of the Storm Shadow, the Missile de Croisière Naval (MdCN). Three of the missiles were launched from the FREMM multipurpose frigate Languedoc in the Mediterranean. [1]

Syria was also the first conflict zone in which the US deployed the F-22 Raptor, when it began bombing Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria back in September 2014, which continues to fly over the country today. Rather than just function as another bomber the F-22 has primarily used its powerful sensors to gather information for other US and coalition aircraft operating over Syria and helped guide them to their targets – performing a not so dissimilar function to what Mizokami speculated Israel’s F-35s might have done.

The Raptors have also helped ensure no clashes occurred between US-led coalition and Russian aircraft and successfully deterred Syrian Su-24s from bombing Kurdish forces in the city of Al-Hasakah in late August 2016 a second time. As military analyst Robert Beckhusen put it: “Think of the F-22 like a sniper – it can use force if needed, but its primary job in the Middle East is to provide overwatch.”

A picture taken on March 2, 2018 shows a Turkish army T129 ATAK attack helicopter flying towards the village of Al-Maabatli in the Afrin region in the northwestern Aleppo province countryside as part of the Operation Olive Branch (Photo: Bakr Alkasem).

A picture taken on March 2, 2018 shows a Turkish army T129 ATAK attack helicopter flying towards the village of Al-Maabatli in the Afrin region in the northwestern Aleppo province countryside as part of the Operation Olive Branch (Photo: Bakr Alkasem).

Ankara utilized its invasion of the northwestern Syrian Kurdish Afrin region earlier this year to try out some of its new military gear in combat. Pro-government newspapers all published several almost identical articles showcasing the type of equipment being used. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım was cited arguing that Ankara’s use of drones over Afrin was a “game-changer that ensured the operations success.”

More than half of the weapons system and vehicles the Turkish military deployed in its Afrin operation were domestically developed and produced platforms […]. — Drones Turned Fortune of Afrin Operation, Prime Minister Says“, DailySabah, 22.03.2018.

The Afrin operation was the first time Turkey deployed its domestically-produced T129 ATAK attack helicopter in combat. The helicopters fired laser-guided 70mm Cirit missiles, also produced in Turkey, at Kurdish fighters. The T129 was developed as part of a joint effort between Turkish Aerospace Industries and AgustaWestland, which is why the T129 is basically a variant of the Agusta A129 Mangusta outfitted with Turkish-made avionics and weapon systems.

The combat debut of the T129s resulted in one being lost to Kurdish ground fire killing both crew-members. Despite that incident Turkey has successfully marketed the T129 and other domestically-produced gear as evidenced by the fact Pakistan is buying 30 T129s in what will amount to the largest Turkish-Pakistani arms deal in history.

Given the fact the Syrian conflict shows no sign of ending anytime soon – with regional powers like Israel and Turkey intervening more forcefully in recent months, and the likelihood that the US and Russia will retain forces in the country for some years to come more – more weapon systems will doubtlessly make their combat debut on the Syrian battlefield in the foreseeable future.

[1] The Storm Shadow was already used during the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and during the NATO intervention in the Libyan Civil War by the RAF, and named as SCALP EG, by the French and the Italian Air Force. Additionally, French aircraft fired SCALP EG missiles at ISIS targets in Syria as part of Opération Chammal. In October 2016 the UK Government confirmed that UK-supplied missiles were used by Saudi Arabia in the conflict in Yemen.

Posted in Armed Forces, English, Intelligence, International, Paul Iddon, Security Policy, Syria | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

EU tank arsenal with Leopard 2: A realizable and useful defence project for Europe?

by Björn Müller (Facebook / Twitter). Björn is journalist in Berlin focusing on security policy and geopolitics.

An Austrian Leopard 2 A4 during the Strong Europe Tank Challenge 2017 at Grafenwoehr, Germany (Photo: U.S. Army by Spc. Nathanael Mercado).

An Austrian Leopard 2 A4 during the Strong Europe Tank Challenge 2017 at Grafenwoehr, Germany (Photo: U.S. Army by Spc. Nathanael Mercado).

Since Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014, its common sense within EU member states that the use of military force is back in politics and serious land forces are important again. Main battle tanks (MBT) are regarded as their backbone. However, especially on heavy tanks the Europeans are weakly positioned – 17 types exist within their armies. In the event of war, differential technologies, crew complement and operational doctrines will severely hamper joint operations. Furthermore, especially the bordering EU member states to Russia in eastern Europe have at best outdated Soviet MBTs or none at all. Other EU states such as Germany were heavily reducing their tank fleet or have ceased them, as in the case of the Netherlands. The European Defence Agency (EDA) tries to target this weakness with the project of an “EU tank arsenal”, which should enhance the readiness of EU member states’ tank forces.

Founded in 2004, EDA’s mission is to promote and to facilitate the integration between the member states within the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy and in this regard to develop projects, which should advance a common EU defence. Concerning the weakness in the area of the MBTs in the EU member states, the EDA came up with the idea that states with Leopard 2 tanks, the most frequent tank model in the EU, should modernize their older versions to the newest standard A7. These would include Germany, Finland, Greece, Italy, Austria, Poland, Sweden and Spain. After the completed modernization, these states should rent them to EU member states, which do not have modern MBTs. The detailed funding concept has been still to be determined, but it seems that the tank lessors should take over the investments for the modernization of the Leopard 2 tanks and could recoup these costs with the rents of the leaseholders over a time of ten years. The leaseholders would integrate the modernized tanks into their land forces and operate them, but servicing and crew training would be centralized in a virtual “EU tank arsenal”, organized as a grouping of European defence companies. This concept should create a win-win situation for lessor and leaseholder states. The former would be getting a steady inflow of money into its defence budget, the later modern MBTs for its forces. The EDA project based on this idea is called “Optimisation of the Main Battle Tank Capability in Europe with initial focus on Leopard 2 (OMBT-Leo2)” and its main goal is to equip eastern EU member states with modern Leopard 2 tanks. Automatically, this would boost the interoperability among the different armed forces within the EU. According to the estimation of Griephan, more than 300 Leopard 2 tanks could be allotted on this way.

The concept of a German defence company
The lead of such an “EU tank arsenal” would be readily undertaken by Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW), the producer of the Leopard 2 and the company behind the concept, which later was borrowed by the EDA. KMW pursues with it two business goals:

  • Firstly, bundled with maintenance, the EDA project would further distribute the Leopard 2 technology EU-wide. Furthermore, the “EU tank arsenal” would create a perfect base to establish the planned German-French MBT as an EU standard tank. KMW and its French partner Nexter (manufacturer of the French MBT Leclerc) are expected to be the producer of the future “Leoclerc” (known under the “KANT project“).
  • Secondly, modernizing and servicing older Leopard 2 variants would help KMW to survive the lean period until the next generation tank. This lean period could pose a major problem for KMW, because its first of all producing the main parts of the Leopard such as the glacis plate.

Currently, states are rarely buying new tanks, but upgrade their MBTs, for example, with a better fire control system. Such upgrades are in KMWs portfolio, but the company Rheinmetall, which supplies important parts of the Leopard (such as the cannon), is often better placed in this market segment. Rheinmetall, which KMW likes to speak about as a “subcontractor”, has won lucrative orders in the last years such as the ones from Poland and Indonesia. Both countries opted for KMW’s competitor to modernize their Leopard 2s on own concepts. KMW would certainly benefit from an overhaul to the version A7 as envisaged with “OMBT-Leo2”, an upgrade level which was developed under KMW guidance.

Benefits of an “EU tank arsenal”
The concept of an “EU tank arsenal” has more potential than only feeding the defence industry. It could offer benefits for a better territorial defence. Christian Mölling, deputy director of the German Council on Foreign Relations stated that “[s]uch a union arsenal would be like a garage with numerous service lifts instead of one in a single nation workshop. As a result, there would be a much better availability of tanks.”

The availability of tanks is a notable problem within the armies of the EU member states, which — as in the case of the German armed forces — are only in name prepared for substantial national defence. The German armed forces have huge difficulties maintaining their MBTs: less than half of all 244 Leopard 2s are operational. The spare parts depots are so badly filled that already the increased training of the German troops for the NATO presence in eastern Europe overcharged them. The maintenance of smaller national tank contingents would be more effective in a European-wide arsenal structure, where the industry provides services for a huger pooled tank fleet.

Mölling sees further advantages: The common use of one tank model would expedite the creation of a unite doctrine within European armies regarding the use of MBTs in operations. That would lead to well-matched tank units between national contingents, to much higher combat power and would favour the ability to sustain in fighting situations. The fallen tank crews of one state could be easily replaced by another. Regarding the territorial defence of European territories, this would improve the deterrence against potential adversaries with strong mechanized troops, such as Russia.

Little interest among potential participants
The advantages of an “EU tank arsenal” with Leopard 2 tanks in it are obvious. Nevertheless, the parliamentary commissioner for the German Armed Forces, Hans-Peter Bartels, is skeptical: “The industry does not have the servicing capacities for such a project. KMW already needs seven years to modernize 104 Leopard 2 for the German armed forces in our national program. For an EU arsenal, the industry or the states must advance huge payments. I don’t see the willingness for such a move.”

The number of MBTs in Member States of the EU has been constantly decreasing, from 15,000 in the year 2000 to just 5,000 today. — “Optimizing Europe’s Main Battle Tank Capabilities”, European Defence Matters, Issue 14, 2017, p.39.

In fact, there is little interest among countries labelled as potential Leopard 2 lessors by the original KMW concept. The ministry of defence in Finland (100 Leopard 2 A4) and Austria (40 Leopard 2 A4) stated on request that they don’t want to join the EDA project. Also Spain, one of the biggest holders of old Leopard 2 tanks (108 Leopard 2 A4), has other priorities, according to Esteban Villarejo, defence editor of Madrid’s daily newspaper ABC: “The defence ministry told me in the context of ‘OMBT-Leo2’ that investments in other projects such as new helicopters and frigates are considered much more important.”

The main problem of the KMW/EDA concept is that after ten years, either the lessor state takes back the Leopard 2 from the leaseholder state or these tanks would build the core of an EU tank fleet. If an EU tank fleet will ever be implemented cannot be foreseen, yet. Nevertheless, from the viewpoint of the lessor the spent money for the modernization of the old Leopard 2 version to the newest standard does not represent a defence investment for the future. Strictly speaking, the Leopard 2 is a weapon system at its zenith and its development potential is exhausted. The industry is already designing the Leopard 2 successor. To ramp up the fighting power of old versions to the A7 level would cost at least seven million Euro apiece according to the estimation of experts.

Because the defence budgets in Europe only slightly increase and because the presence of other important new fields of armament such as drones and cyber technology, the upgrade of tanks takes place in a competitive environment. For now, only the German Armed Forces (from A4 to A7) and Poland (from A4 to A5/A6 equivalent) started a Leopard 2 modernization program. Apart from that, European armies with Leopard 2 tanks are using them as spare parts donors or to close other gaps in military equipment for the territorial defence; for example: Germany and Spain are planning to convert Leopard 2 A4s to armoured vehicle-launched bridges.

Despite their proximity to Russia, the potential leaseholder states in eastern Europe are not very keen to get MBTs from the EDA project. Hilmar Linnenkamp, former deputy chief executive of the EDA, assess that “[t]he smaller countries nowadays constrain themselves to maintain lighter armed troops which are not so expensive. They prefer a specialized defence concept within NATO and EU where huger players like Germany should bring in the heavy material.” For example, the defence concepts of the Baltic states only envisaged infantry fighting vehicles, but no MBTs. The ministries of defence of Lithuania and Estonia stated to the author that they don’t want to join the EDA project.

Czechia is a fan – Germany hesitates
Germany and the Czech Republic show their interest in the project. The ministry of defence in Prague signifies on request that its main interest lies in the benefits of country’s defence industry. Czech companies could deliver products in the field of optoelectronics, CBRN protection, cable harnessing and medical modifications of the Leopard tanks. The tone in the German ministry of defence on the “OMBT-Leo2” is more reserved: “We are tracing the development of the project with particular interest.” That surely means that Berlin is undecided if it should join or not.

There are pros and cons from a German perspective. The project could be a favourable platform to offer the planned German-French MBT to participants of the “EU tank arsenal” and could promote the implementation of the upcoming technology as an “EU standard”. That would serve Germany’s general interest to place itself as a main coordinator of a European-wide defence network. However, the concept does not fit to Germany’s military strategy for Europe, which is based on the approach that small, specialized armies should lean on frame forces with a broader range of capabilities, such as Germany. The idea behind this approach is the better long-term allocation of the shrunken, only slowly recovering, military resources of European states. In fact, the EDA-project offers exactly the opposite: the shrunken tank stocks in Europe would be spread among more users – an idea in which a lot of EU partner armies obviously don’t see any need. In other words: the concept of an “EU tank arsenal” with modernized Leopard 2 tanks could bring clear benefits for Europe’s territorial defence, but its implementation is unrealistic.

Posted in Armed Forces, Björn Müller, English, International, Security Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

In the air, on the ground and sea: Qatar’s arms shopping list is exponentially growing

by Paul Iddon

If even a sizable portion of the Emirate of Qatar’s current arms deals come to fruition in the foreseeable future then Doha’s military will become far larger and more powerful in the first half of the 2020s. From expanding its air force with cutting edge American and French fighter jets to an unprecedented expansion of its ground and naval forces, Qatar is pouring billions into making its military a formidable power that could punch well above its weight in the Persian Gulf region, if it finds enough skilled personnel.

Royal Saudi Air Force F-15SA, introduced in February 2017, which is similar but inferior than the F-15QA (Photo: Fahad Rihan).

Royal Saudi Air Force F-15SA, introduced in February 2017, which is similar but inferior to the F-15QA (Photo: Fahad Rihan).

Since the blockade was imposed upon it in the summer of 2017, Qatar has made deals which will transform its modest air force of just 12 French-made Dassault Mirage 2000s into a highly formidable air force in terms of both quantity and quality.

Doha has reached a deal to beef up its air power with 36 F-15E Strike Eagle with the US – which is building the sheikdom a new variant of the iconic jet fighter known as the F-15QA, with some superior capabilities to Saudi Arabia’s F-15SA Strike Eagle variant. The Boeing contract to build these jets is worth $6 billion.

Qatar also completed a pre-blockade deal with France to supply it with 24 Dassault Rafale multi-role fighter jets in a deal valued at approximately $7 billion. It was also announced last December 2017, when French President Emmanuel Macron visited, that Doha exercised its option to purchase an additional 12 Rafales. This came into effect in late March, meaning that Qatar will receive two batches of Rafales that will give it a 36-strong fleet. This fleet will likely consist of mostly single-seat variants. It’s not yet clear how much Qatar will pay for the additional 12 jets.

The deal also includes the supply of Meteor air-to-air missiles and long-range cruise missiles, giving the Qataris an aerial platform capable of holding its own in the air and striking any potential adversaries on the ground with precision.

As previously noted here on last July a fleet of these advanced American and French aircraft will give the Qatari Emiri Air Force (QEAF) a formidable arsenal which, especially in terms of per capita, could seriously challenge its much larger neighbours.

Doha also made a £6 billion deal (roughly $8 billion) with the UK to purchase 24 Eurofighter Typhoons last December. The deal includes support and training from Britain’s BAE Systems and is scheduled to commence in 2022.

Just after the initial letter of intent was signed last September 17 Jane’s defence journal noted that if all of Qatar’s “orders are fulfilled in full, the QEAF will field a fighter force of 84 platforms across three different types.” (Add to this the additional 12 Rafales then the tiny sheikdom will possess a highly formidable fleet totaling 96 new jets; the Dassault Mirage 2000s will be replaced by the new fighter jets)

In March 2018 the tiny emirate also made an agreement to buy six armed Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones along with ground control systems, equipment and a training simulator. According to the Turkish press these systems will be delivered within a year.

On top of all this Qatar is also in talks with the Russians to buy sophisticated long-range S-400 air defense missile systems, which could potentially turn Qatar’s airspace into an Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) challenge for any potential adversary. “Talks about the subject are at an advanced stage,” Fahad Mohammed Al-Attiyah, Doha’s ambassador to Moscow, told the Russian state-run TASS news agency in January.

BMC Kirpi MRAP (Hedgehog) in Eurosatory 2012.

Doha has also reached an other agreement with Turkey which will bolster its almost nonexistent ground forces, that currently consist of little more than 30 aging French-made AMX-30 tanks, with 85 armoured vehicles. The head of Turkey’s BMC company, Ethem Sancak, told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news recently that the deal consists of 50 of Turkey’s BMC Kirpi (Turkish for Hedgehog) Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles along with 35 lightly armoured BMC Amazon 4×4 vehicles. It’s unclear when production of these vehicles and their eventual delivery will transpire.

In 2013, Doha bought 62 Leopard 2A7+ main battle tanks from Germany along with 24 Panzerhaubitze 2000 (a 155 mm self-propelled howitzer) and some light support vehicles in a €1.89 billion (approximately $2.2 billion) deal. The Qataris also have the option of purchasing another 200 Leopard 2A7+s in the future. At present they have taken delivery of no fewer than 32 of the German-made tanks.

Qatar also signed a letter of intent to buy 490 armoured VBCI infantry fighting vehicles built by the French government’s Nexter Systems weapons manufacturing company during Macron’s aforementioned visit last December. The Norwegian firm Kongsberg was selected in March to provide turrets and weapon systems for those vehicles. However, that potential $1.94 billion contract has not yet been finalized. Jane’s also noted that “it is unclear what vehicle variants and weapons configurations the Qataris will ultimately order”.

Also last December, Qatar revealed that they had a modified China-made SY-400 short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile system, which they paraded through Doha. The SY-400s are capable of delivering a payload of 200 kilograms against targets up to 400 kilometers away, meaning Qatar’s ground forces are at least theoretically capable of striking the territory of any of its neighbours were it to come under attack.

Another potential country that could supply Qatar with some of its military’s needs is Ukraine. Both countries signed an agreement regarding military and technical cooperation during a meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in March. The document says it “will contribute to strengthening friendly ties between Ukraine and Qatar aimed at improving the defense capacity of the two states.”

In the meantime, Qatar has permitted Turkey to base troops (about 150 soldiers) and equipment on its soil since the onset of the blockade, which serve as another deterrent against any potential attacker.

An official Fincantieri artist depiction of one of the future multi-role air defence corvette of the Qatar Emiri Naval Forces

An official Fincantieri artist depiction of one of the future multi-role air defence corvette of the Qatar Emiri Naval Forces.

On the sea, Qatar also wants to beef up its small navy of just seven attack boats – which currently consist of four British-made Vita-class fast attack craft and three French-made La Combattante III-class fast attack craft.

From Italy Qatar made an order last August of seven vessels produced by the country’s Fincantieri shipbuilder. The order consists of four air defence corvettes of over 100 meters in length, two offshore patrol vessels and a landing platform dock (LPD) in a project worth up to $5,9 billion. Doha is expected to take delivery of the first corvette by 2021, while the rest of the ships should enter naval service in the emirate in the next six years.

The vice president of Fincantieri’s Qatar program, David Traverso, lauded the deal describing it as “the biggest turnkey program we have ever had in terms of export market in the Arab region. [..] The program will be a big boost for our shipyards in the naval business area,” he said, “but I would say the same for Qatar, as we will be staying there for approximately 10 years in order to maintain the naval units.”

The corvettes will be fitted with an assortment of firepower ranging from main 76 mm guns to Exocet anti-ship missiles and Aster 30 anti-aircraft missiles. Such weapons could prove devastating in close quarters, such as in the narrow confines of the Persian Gulf. The lone LPD, the “mother ship” of this nascent new navy, will likely be a helicopter carrier for some of the NH90 helicopters Qatar is also buying from the NHIIndustries consortium. Doha ordered 12 naval variants of the helicopter along with another 16 configured as tactical transports.

On March 13 the Anadolu Shipyard in Turkey also announced that it had signed an agreement to build two training ships for the Qatari Navy. The chairman of the shipyard told Turkey’s Anadolu news agency that they will have the capacity to train 72 naval cadets at a time. Qatari officials also said in March that they made agreements to procure another 17 warships which, according to Anadolu, “will be outfitted with weapons built by Turkish defense manufacturer Aselsan.”

Conclusion: Lack of manpower the main stumbling block
The fact that many of these deals were made after Qatar was placed under a blockade in mid-2017 is a slap in the face to that Saudi-led endeavour, which aimed to essentially strip the tiny country of its independence and bring its foreign policy in line with the interests of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. It’s also a sign that Doha is conscious of how limited its military capabilities have been in the preceding decades.

While all these deals combined are unlikely to enable Qatar to prevail on some future battlefield against its neighbours, they will give Doha a much more effective deterrent against any potential attack, fulfilling its most fundamental defence needs in ways it hitherto could not.

Nevertheless, tiny Qatar – with a native population of a mere 300,000 – is faced with the enormous task of finding skilled personnel to both operate these systems and, eventually, maintain them. As the International Institute for Strategic Studies‘ (IISS) 2018 Military Balance report notes: “At a conservative estimate of 1.5 pilots trained per aircraft, this will mean that, in due course, the QEAF will need a minimum steady state of over 300 trained pilots, plus the requisite engineers, weapons experts and other personnel, which will likely prove a significant challenge”.

Things are not much better on the naval front. The report notes that Qatar “lacks its own naval academy, and even if it had one, officers would be hard pressed to assimilate the specialist training and experience that will be required to operate the navy’s new ships to their full capability”.

And, finally, on the ground the Qatari army “also requires a wide range of supporting capabilities that will be essential for it to be militarily effective, not least a fully integrated command-and-control system, […] training, maintenance and logistics requirements”.

Posted in English, International, Paul Iddon, Qatar, Security Policy | Tagged | Leave a comment

What Sadr’s rise to power in Baghdad might mean for Iraqi Kurdistan

by Paul Iddon

The results from this month’s Iraqi elections have made it indisputably clear that Muqtada al-Sadr is a powerful figure in Baghdad who cannot be dismissed. While it’s not yet clear what this will mean for the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan his past stances may prove informative.

Iraqi Kurdistan's former President Masoud Barzani welcoming Muqtada al-Sadr to Iraqi Kurdistan's capital city Erbil in 2012.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s former President Masoud Barzani welcoming Muqtada al-Sadr to Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital city Erbil in 2012.

“I think a powerful Sadr in Baghdad means a lot for Kurds in the Kurdistan Region, as Sadr has good ties with Saudi Arabia and his anti-Iranian policy in Iraq is quite advantageous for them,” Lawk Ghafuri, a Kurdish political writer and economic masters degree candidate, told Offiziere. “However a powerful Sadr also means a weaker U.S. in Baghdad, as it’s obvious Muqtada al-Sadr has been opposing the US policy in Iraq for years,” he added.

It’s not yet clear what the future government of Iraq will look like. Michael Knights, a leading Iraq analyst and Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Offiziere that he sees scenarios “in which Sadr shapes the next government, is in an Iran-built pan-Shiite government, or is the only major bloc not in the government.”

Knights consequently recommends that it is “best not to assume anything” at such an early stage. He does, nevertheless, point to Sadr’s past interactions with the Kurds, “most notably with the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party] in the May 2012 in the attempted vote of no-confidence in [former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki, when Muqtada resisted huge Iranian pressure to leave that [former Kurdish President Masoud] Barzani-led effort.”

The KDP is the largest political party in Iraqi Kurdistan and won the most seats among Kurdish parties in the Iraqi Parliament in this election.

Kyle Orton, a UK-based independent Middle East researcher, points to the broader history of Sadr transforming himself from a murderous sectarian thug in the early years of the Iraq War (2003-11) to a more conciliatory and largely non-sectarian nationalist figure in more recent memory.

Sadr's Peace Companies militiamen leaving Kirkuk after Iraq seized the region from the Kurds last October (Photo: Raveen Aujmaya on Twitter).

Sadr’s Peace Companies militiamen leaving Kirkuk after Iraq seized the region from the Kurds last October (Photo: Raveen Aujmaya on Twitter).

“Sadr’s messaging has been, as one would expect from a nationalist figure, deliberately conciliatory between Sunnis and Shiites within Iraq, both in rhetoric (condemning Nouri al-Maliki’s anti-Sunni policies) and action (his Peace Companies faction behaved much better than many Hashd al-Shaabi battalions in areas liberated from the Islamic State),” Orton told Offiziere.

He also instances Sadr’s historic visit to Saudi Arabia last year as well as his “attempts to reduce friction between Arabs and Kurds” as positive examples of his conciliatory approach. “Sadr’s stated position on Kirkuk is by no means aligned with the KDP, but it purports to be a lot more amenable to compromise than [incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister] Haider al-Abadi proved to be and obviously more so than Iran’s outright proxies such as Hadi al-Ameri,” Orton explained.

Knights also believes that al-Sadr “would be a net positive for the Kurdish people, especially now that Kirkuk is back in federal hands, which has removed one irritant and source of paranoia for Sadrists.”

Ghafuri argues that the most important thing for Kurds presently is “unity in Baghdad”. “We should also remember that after the Kurdistan independence referendum last September Sadr was one of the leaders who suggested to Abadi that he send forces to control border gates of the Kurdistan Region,” he went on to recall. “The first thing the Kurds need to is set some conditions before entreating the coalition to form any government in Baghdad, since forming the government in Baghdad now depends highly on Kurds, especially the KDP,” he reasoned. “I’m saying KDP as the others – namely the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] and Gorran [Movement for Change party] – are already considered an Iranian policy implementers in Iraq in Sadr’s perspective.” The PUK is widely alleged, among other things, to have handed over the disputed region of Kirkuk to Iraq last October as part of an Iran-brokered deal.

Orton believes that al-Sadr’s electoral success could lead to the formation of “an ostensibly more moderate, less Iran-friendly governmental coalition in Baghdad combining together al-Sadr and al-Abadi, perhaps with Iyad al-Allawi<’s/a> Al-Wataniya and Osama al-Nujaifi’s Qarar al-Iraqi.”

Iraq's Parliament in Baghdad.

Iraq’s Parliament in Baghdad.

“If Sadr wins and heads such a coalition he also provides something of a face-saving way for the KDP to re-enter a coalition with Abadi, who could be asked to stay on as prime minister,” he added. Orton also anticipates that in spite of these results “the pillars of Iran’s pervasive influence in Iraq will endure, even if Sadr’s positioning against Tehran is genuine. […] The Kurdistan Region is likely to continue to struggle to make its way within Iraq,” he added, pointing to its devastating loss of Kirkuk in October, the continuing economic crisis in the region as well as the machinations of the PUK in recent months – which Orton says places them “wholly in the Iranian camp”. “This loss of leverage for Erbil is compounded by the better-than-expected showing for the Fatah Alliance, which will further entrench politically the military power that Iran holds in Iraq through its Shiite militias, whose primary antagonist since ISIS receded has been the Kurdish Peshmerga forces under KDP command,” he concluded.

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In the Crosshairs: South Korean Energy Security

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

North Korean figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok (R) and Kim Ju Sik perform during the figure skating exhibition gala at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, on Feb. 25, 2018.

North Korean figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok (R) and Kim Ju Sik perform during the figure skating exhibition gala at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, on Feb. 25, 2018.

The election of Moon Jae-in as President of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in May 2017 has brought with it many changes in government policy, perhaps most notably the conciliatory approach he has adopted toward the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang and the inter-Korean summit on April 28. The most ambitious of President Moon’s proposed reforms, though, relates to South Korea’s energy policy, which was unveiled in June 2017, barely a month after he took office. Yet, this proposal might not go far enough in ensuring South Korea’s energy security, especially when tensions inevitably erupt once again on the Korean Peninsula.

Under President Moon’s proposal, South Korea would turn away from coal and nuclear fission, with coal-fired power generation’s share of the national energy mix dropping from 40% to 21% by 2030 and nuclear power declining to 22% from approximately 30%. Meanwhile, Moon’s plan would have South Korea place greater reliance on gas-fired power and renewable resources in the future; by 2030, gas-fired power’s share of the South Korean energy mix would grow from 18% to 27% and renewables would expand from 5% to 20%. This will, in short, mean installing 47.2 gigawatts (GW) worth of new generating capacity from renewable resources in a period of only 12 years.

While a continued role for nuclear power and an increased reliance on renewables will help ensure South Korea meets or exceeds its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), these reforms will do little to improve South Korea’s weak level of energy security. As has been demonstrated in recent conflicts elsewhere in the world, large-scale energy infrastructure can be targeted by hostile governments or armed factions in order to coerce or inflict economic harm. For example, several armed groups involved in the ongoing Yemeni Civil War have launched ballistic missiles at refineries and oil terminals in neighbouring Saudi Arabia in an effort to compel the Saudis to withdraw their support for the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur al-Hadi. Similarly, in the event of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula or regime collapse in North Korea, it is conceivable that North Korean ballistic missiles could be used to strike refineries and large-scale electricity generating facilities in South Korea.

South Korea total primary energy consumption by fuel type, 2015.

South Korea total primary energy consumption by fuel type, 2015.

In particular, it is worth noting that the SK Incheon Petrochem facility, which processes approximately 275,000 barrels of crude oil per day, is located within range of the conventional artillery that North Korea has amassed along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). South Korea’s remaining four refineries, processing a combined total of 2.7 million barrels of crude oil per day, are within range of many of the missile designs within the North Korean arsenal, from the older Hwasong-6 to the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) unveiled in November 2017. Beyond refineries, several large-scale electricity generating facilities, such as the Yangyang Pumped Storage Power Station, owned and operated by Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power and with a hydropower capacity of 1,000 MW, are sufficiently close to the North Korean border that they could be targeted for a ballistic missile strike. This would have a devastating economic impact, as the Yangyang hydropower project alone provides electricity to about 164,000 households in South Korea and any significant damage to the facility would be very expensive to repair – in terms of both time and resources.

Given this, it is surprising that the new South Korean energy policy does not explicitly promote a transition to distributed generation and a decentralized grid. Such an approach would see South Korea placing greater emphasis on small-scale electricity generation facilities and encouraging each building, particularly in commercial districts, to be self-sufficient, such as through the installation of solar panels or geothermal heating and cooling systems. Distributed generation would be relatively easy for South Korea to implement; with a population density of approximately 507 people per square kilometre, South Korea is the 23rd most densely populated country in the world. As South Korea occupies a small territory of just over 100,000 square kilometres, the necessary infrastructure changes would not be prohibitively expensive either. By locating some power generation facilities close to major population centres, which would be almost unavoidable in such a densely populated country, it would also be possible to avoid high transmission costs. As such, promoting greater reliance on electricity generation from renewable resources without the accompanying change in how that energy is transmitted and distributed to consumers seems a half-measure.

Oil infrastructure of the Republic of Korea (Source: "Energy Supply Security 2014", International Energy Agency, 2014, p. 289).

Oil infrastructure of the Republic of Korea (Source: “Energy Supply Security 2014”, International Energy Agency, 2014, p. 289).

Political realities may explain why President Moon’s administration is reluctant to take the full steps necessary to guarantee energy security in the face of the North Korean threat. Polling from October 2017 suggests the South Korean public narrowly favours continued investment in nuclear power and, as of this writing, construction continues on five nuclear reactor units: three at Kori Nuclear Power Plant and two at Hanul Nuclear Power Plant. Amid an historic thaw in relations with North Korea, President Moon enjoys an approval rating of 84%. But this popularity could quickly erode if upcoming inter-Korea talks fall through or fail to produce any tangible outcomes, especially as President Moon’s popularity prior to the Olympics had dropped from 70.8% in early December 2017 to 59.8% just over a month later, in January 2018. This may go some way toward explaining why President Moon does not have much appetite for a controversial war on the nuclear industry or a major campaign to significantly change the way South Koreans interact with and manage electricity in their daily lives. This is especially true among young voters, who were key to bringing President Moon to power in 2017 and have shown strong disapproval of the decision to field a team representing a “united” Korea at the Pyeongchang Olympics. These same young voters would be most sensitive to any changes in South Korean energy policy that would suggest a weak level of commitment to the aforementioned Paris Agreement.

As it seems unlikely that President Moon’s popularity will be buoyed in the polls before South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy (MOTIE) begins its implementation of the new energy policy, it is likely South Korea will continue to have weak levels of energy security, characterized by a reliance on large-scale power generating facilities and the importation of natural resources. This further raises the strategic importance for South Korea of participating in the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system proposed by the United States, though this technology cannot fully guarantee national energy security either. As some analysts have noted, more recent missile designs tested by North Korea may have the ability to evade modern ballistic missile defence systems. This would also offer no assurance for the security of those facilities within range of North Korea’s conventional artillery, like the SK Incheon Petrochem facility. The surest guarantee of South Korean energy security, therefore, is to give the North as few targets of opportunity for its ballistic missiles as possible by decentralizing power generation.

The launch of four ballistic missiles by the Korean People's Army (KPA) during a military drill at an undisclosed location in North Korea earlier March 2017.

The launch of four ballistic missiles by the Korean People’s Army (KPA) during a military drill at an undisclosed location in North Korea earlier March 2017.

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Making the Most of the Montreux Document

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

Photo by Jake Warga

Photo by Jake Warga

American efforts to stabilize Iraq following the 2003 invasion and disbanding of the Iraqi Republican Guard saw a resurgence in the use of private military contractors (PMCs). It is estimated that, by 2006, at least 100,000 contractors were working in Iraq directly for the United States Department of Defence, representing a dramatic increase in the number of contractors used by the US since the 1990-1991 Gulf War. It was in this context that the Government of Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) initiated discussions on a kind of “code of conduct” for PMCs and their use in areas of armed conflict, eventually resulting in the September 2008 signing of the “Montreux Document” by several countries.

The “Montreux Document” contains approximately 70 recommendations, including proposed procedures for screening personnel, correct prosecution when breaches of conduct occur, and personnel training on international human rights and humanitarian law. It is, in truth, a non-binding and non-legal document, as no signatory can be sanctioned for failing to implement these recommendations in domestic law or practice. Yet, in the decade since the “Montreux Document” was produced, only 54 countries have signed and ratified, including 23 of the European Union’s 28 member states and the US. Interestingly, many countries which have recently employed, or are currently employing, large numbers of PMCs have still neglected to sign the “Montreux Document”, including Egypt, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia.

The 53 Participating states of the Montreux Document.

The 53 Participating states of the Montreux Document.

This seems to suggest an ongoing lack of awareness within the international community about the destabilizing effect PMCs can have in conflict areas when accountability and a strict code of conduct are absent. In some cases, this destabilizing effect is understood and used to pursue perceived geopolitical objectives, as in the case of Iran employing PMCs in Syria. Some might argue that governments have abstained from the “Montreux Document” out of a belief that the private security industry should self-regulate, especially given the international nature of some of these companies and their operations. To that end, in 2013, the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC PSSP) was developed, again through the leadership of the Swiss government. But only seven countries (Australia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the US), 24 civil society organizations, and 91 companies have signed on to this document, which is also non-binding and non-legal.

The ICoC PSSP goes some way toward plugging the gaps, with the 91 PMCs complying with this code hailing from 32 different countries, some of which have not yet ratified the aforementioned “Montreux Document”, such as Ghana and Colombia. The bulk of the PMCs party to the ICoC PSSP are based in the countries described in the table below.

Number of PMCs Country
15+ United Kingdom (16), United States (15)
5-14 Cyprus (7), Pakistan (6)
3-4 China (4), France (4), Iraq (3), Singapore (3), Somalia (3)

A relatively easy way to ensure more widespread compliance with the recommendations outlined in the ICoC PSSP would be for countries which have signed the “Montreux Document” to also sign the code of conduct, with their national contact points then pressuring PMCs that have abstained from the ICoC to sign on as well. This “naming and shaming” certainly could not force full compliance from all PMCs, but it would certainly expand the scope of the code of conduct to include more actors within the private security industry. If this scope is then sufficiently expanded, it may well lead to international legal bodies viewing the provisions under the code of conduct as jus cogens, fundamental principles of law that can be applied to the conduct of even those PMCs which are not party to the ICoC PSSp. As only 7 of the 54 state parties to the “Montreux Document” have also signed the ICoC, there is considerable room for this growth in scope.

It is important that this power – to name and shame PMCs which do not comply with minimum standards of conduct – be fully utilized. In the past, intergovernmental organizations, aids groups, and other actors in conflict areas have exhibited a reluctance to do so. One recent comprehensive study by American University researchers on the implementation of the “Montreux Document” found several cases in which PMCs clearly breached minimum standards of conflict but were not “named and shamed”, such as an incident in July 2010, when private security personnel opened fire on the road from Baghdad International Airport, killing one Iraqi civilian, but the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) declined to specify which company had been involved in the incident. While this initial reluctance to name the company could be attributed to operational security needs – in particular, personnel from that company could find themselves targeted for reprisal by armed groups – the lack of transparency about the incident in years after the incident suggests a lack of appreciation for the corrective power “naming and shaming” can have for a specific company and for the broader private security industry.

In any case, that only 54 countries have signed the “Montreux Document” ten years on is hardly encouraging. A renewed effort to establish standards of behaviour for private military contractors operating in areas of armed conflict is needed, especially as the outsourcing of military operations to private contractors continues and commercial shipping comes under increased threat from piracy in the waterways of Southeast Asia, West Africa, and beyond. With that in mind, the Maritime Working Group of the forum for participants of the “Montreux Document” had its first meeting on the use of private military and security companies in maritime security on January 30, 2018.

• • •

What does the “Montreux Document”?

The “Montreux Document” …

  • recalls the pertinent international legal obligations of States, private military and security companies (PMSCs) and their personnel in situations of armed conflict;
  • contains a compilation of good practices designed to help States take national measures to implement their obligations;
  • highlights the responsibilities of three types of States: Contracting States (countries that hire PMSCs), Territorial States (countries on whose territory PMSCs operate) and Home States (countries in which PMSCs are based);
  • makes it clear that States have an obligation to ensure respect for international humanitarian law and to uphold human rights law; as a result, they have a duty to take measures designed to prevent misconduct by PMSCs and ensure accountability for criminal behaviour;
  • recalls that PMSCs and their personnel are bound by international humanitarian law and must respect its provisions at all times during armed conflict, regardless of their status;
  • recalls that misconduct on the part of PMSCs and their personnel can trigger responsibility on two levels: first, the criminal responsibility of the perpetrators and their superiors, and second, the responsibility of the State that gave instructions for, directed or controlled the misconduct;
  • provides a toolkit for governments to establish effective oversight and control over PMSCs, for example through contracts or licensing/authorization systems.

The “Montreux Document” is useful because it enhances the protection afforded to people affected by armed conflicts. It does so by clarifying and reaffirming international law, by encouraging the adoption of national regulations on PMSCs designed to strengthen respect for international law, and by offering guidance on how and in what light this should be done, based on lessons learnt. The conduct of parties to an armed conflict is regulated by international humanitarian law. Another branch of international law – human rights law – also provides protection in armed conflicts. Most of the rules (expressed as statements) and good practices assembled in the “Montreux Document” derive from international humanitarian law and human rights law. Other branches of international law, such as the law of State responsibility and international criminal law, also serve as a basis.

• • •

More information
Anna Marie Burdzy, “The Montreux Document: A Mapping Study on Outreach and Implementation“, Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, 2017

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Drones are an evolving threat: The ‘poor man’s’ precision guided munition

by Asiri Fernando. He is currently reading for a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Politics, Security and Counter Terrorism Studies at Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia. He has completed an internship at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) as a research assistant and holds a diploma in International Relations from the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) in Colombo. He has served as a news editor for the Sri Lankan Air Force Command Media Unit during 2009/10.

One of the UAVs is displayed upside-down to show its IEDs mounted on rails.

One of the UAVs is displayed upside-down to show its IEDs mounted on rails.

On the night of 5-6 January 2018, a new chapter in asymmetric warfare may have opened in Syria. A Russian Air Force detachment at Khmeimim Air Base and at the Tartus Naval station came under attack from a swarm of drones.

Up to 13 drones were used for these two attacks making it an unprecedented use of drone airpower by a non-state actor. The drones were guided by using GPS and could have been launched from up to 100 km away. Apparently, seven of these drones were destroyed by Pantsyr-S short-range air defence systems and the other six were intercepted by electronic warfare units. The Russian Ministry of Defence denied any own losses or damages due to the incident. Two recovered samples were displayed at a press briefing in January 11.

According to a statement of the Russian Ministry of Defence the “[e]ngineering solutions used by terrorists when attacking Russian facilities in Syria could have been received only from a country with high technological potential on providing satellite navigation and distant control of firing competently assembled self-made explosive devices in appointed place” (“UAV attack causes no damage to Russian military facilities in Syria“, TASS, 8 January 2018). Major General Aleksandr Novikov, the head of the Russian military’s UAV development and construction department highlighted that the drones carried each ten 400g improvised explosive devices (IED) with fragmentations (small metal balls). Apparently, Pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) was used as explosive basis in the IEDs, which is produces “by a number of countries, including Ukraine at the Shostkinsky Chemical Plant”.

An attack south of Tal Afar in north-western Iraq carried out by an Air-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (ABIED) launched from a drone in February 2017.

Russians finger-pointing could be interpreted as a sign of the growing tensions between the USA and Russia. Both Russia and the USA support, supply and train different fractions waging war in Syria. However, contrary to claim by the Russian Ministry of defence on the satellite navigation and distant control of firing technology, the necessary technological solutions have been available in the civilian market for many years and PETN was used by terrorist groups several times before (for example in the 1980 Paris synagogue bombing, the 2001 shoe bomb attempt and it was used in 2009 by the “Underwear Bomber“). According to Samuel Bendett, a researcher specializing in unmanned systems at the Center for Naval Analyses, “[i]t’s very likely that such parts were most likely acquired commercially, in which case we are entering a dangerous terra incognita with respect to unsanctioned UAV use by non-state and terrorist organizations.” The use of drones by insurgents and terrorists is a growing trend in the Iraq-Syria conflict zone during the past few years; it is a showcase of what is possible with existing and emerging technologies.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and other groups such as Hezbollah and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham have been known to use drones for their activities in the past and continue to do so today. Non-state actors have mostly used drones for reconnaissance, fire correction and to strike ground targets with small munitions or IEDs. The use of drones offers insurgents and terrorists unprecedented tactical advantages to coordinate attacks and gather intelligence, especially in urban environments. Further, imagery captured by drones make valuable propaganda material for groups like ISIS, who rely heavily on online visual content for recruitment. The proliferation of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) technologies, ease of access to commercially available components, availability of commercial drones and recreational crafts is viewed as a concern by Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre. The number of Airborne Improvised Explosive Devices (ABIEDs) has been increasing since the start of the Syrian war, and ABIEDs have been used in Iraq as well.

Recovered ABIED’s used in the Khmeimim Air Base attack.

Recovered ABIED’s used in the Khmeimim Air Base attack.

ISIS is believed to be the most prolific user of drones up to now. Although insurgents and terrorists in Iraq and Syria have used fixed-wing drones from time to time in the past few years, most of the used drones have been commercial quadcopters, most of which are small enough to be carried and used by one individual. The possibility to purchase them online at a low cost makes them an ideal choice. The quadcopter configuration offers a stable slow and low altitude platform and comes with easy to master controls, real-time video downlink and simple navigation systems. Furthermore its ability to hover over a target offers relatively good accuracy. For aerial attack, quadcopters are often used with small ABIEDs. The most frequently ones have been made of 30 mm or 40 mm grenade launcher ammunition with an improvised tail-fin assembly (Nick Waters, “Death From Above: The Drone Bombs of the Caliphate“, Bellingcat, 10.02.2017). ISIS is also known to have designed and manufactured in numbers, several types of ABIEDs, projectile bombs and related fuses in Syria (“Islamic State’s Multi-Role IEDs: Projected Grenades Used as Air-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (ABIEDs)“, Conflict Armament Research, April 2017).

However, according to military analyst Nick Waters, the ABIEDs recovered after the Khmeimim attack may be specifically built for a drone-borne attack (see his Tweet below). The downed drones displayed by the Russian Ministry of Defence indicate that they were purpose built. Designed in a conventional aircraft (fixed–wing) configuration and powered by a small diesel engine, it is clear that these drones were designed to have greater range and higher payload capacity. These facts indicate that the Khmeimim Air Force Base attack was a progression in the tactics of drone-borne ABIED-use by a non-state actor. Further, the use of commonly available “off the shelf” components make it difficult to track its origins and builders, adding a layer of deniability to the drone user.

There have been reports of drones and ABIEDs being used in the ongoing civil wars in Yemen and Libya. In December 2017, the US have used a recovered drone amongst other exhibits as evidence for alleged Iranian state sponsoring of Yemeni rebel and terrorist groups. Laura Seal, a US Defence Department Spokesperson, referred to the Qasef-1, an ABIED “kamikaze-style” drone, which had been recovered from Houthi groups by the Saudi Forces. Seal claimed that “[o]nly Iran makes the Qasef-1. It is a member of the Ababil UAV family, designed and produced by the Iranian government.” Due to such claims, it is prudent to expect that more sophisticated UAS technology and more advanced types of drones may be fielded by non–state actors in the future. Drones such as the Qasef-1, give non-state actors a degree of stand-off range precision strike capabilities which were previously only available to government forces.

The asymmetric threat posed by drones are very much a concern for security planners and practitioners around the world (see also Darien Cavanaugh, “Small, Cheap UAVs Are Making the Pentagon Nervous, so DARPA Is Stepping in to Help“,, 15.11.2016). The increasing sophistication of such ABIEDs and drones used indicates that they are on an evolutionary path to becoming a more common insurgent and terrorist tool in the coming years. In 2017, the US Army awarded a contract worth up to USD $16 million to develop and field a mobile Counter-UAS (C-UAS) system by early summer 2018. .

Captured Qasef-1 Kamikaze style drone, on exhibit by the US Department of Defense.

Captured Qasef-1 Kamikaze style drone, on exhibit by the US Department of Defense.

Off the battlefield, drone-borne threats to critical infrastructure, aviation and soft targets are a significant security concern, too (Asiri Fernando, “Unlawful Use of Civilian Drones in Sri Lanka: A Security Concern?“, Institute of National Security Studies of Sri Lanka, 29.07.2017). Between early October and late November 2014, drones breaching the restricted airspace over 13 of France’s 19 nuclear power plants caused the French authorities to introduce several measures to counter illegal drone intrusions over critical infrastructure and defence related sites. In 2015, a drone carrying radioactive sand landed on the Japanese Prime Minister’s residence. Police later arrested a man who had intended to protest against Japan’s Nuclear energy policies with the drone landing (“Japan Radioactive Drone: Tokyo Police Arrest Man“, BBC News, 25.04.2015). Such acts demonstrate that Drones or UASs can be used to deliver small chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear payloads.

In February 2017, the US Department of Homeland Security released a document on critical infrastructure security where it notes that drones can be a significant threat to national security and that the potential for drone use in an attack is on the rise. Utility services networks such as the national power grid, water distribution systems and filtration plants, telecommunication networks, ports and oil refineries are key to maintain the economy running smoothly and are vulnerable on drone attacks. Therefore, it is important that security policymakers pay attention to the evolving threat landscape, especially in relation to critical infrastructure protection.

More information

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