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Monday, June 15, 2015

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

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

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

Russian Military Capabilities & Intentions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image 3: Su-30 MKI

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

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


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

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Deal or No Deal: The Case for Diplomacy with Iran Part II - Assuaging Gulf Allies & Bolstering Regional Deterrence

[Update Shortly after the publication of this article, Saudi Arabia announced its intent to acquire 10 MH-60 ASW helicopters.] 

Image 3: US CENTCOM "enduring locations" (bases) construction budget FY 2016-2021.

The concern of G.C.C. (Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates) nations that a nuclear deal between the United States and Iran would compromise their own security is understandable. G.C.C. nations, Saudi Arabia in particular, perceives the US-Iran nuclear deal within the context of the US re-balance to Asia (Cooper, 2015). From the Saudi. perspective, not only is the United States substantially drawing down its long-term presence in the region, but also it is empowering the most significant military, cultural, religious, and political rival in the region. Many G.C.C. nations have clearly shown they view the context of the Saudi-Iran rivalry in a sectarian Sunni-Shia context as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have already provided arms to radical Sunni Islamist groups in Syria to fight Assad's Alawite (Shia sect) regime despite US concerns (Sanger, 2014). Saudi Arabia's leaders already perceive a situation of strategic encirclement as a result of Iran backed Shia proxies operating in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen (Kram & Keath, 2015). In an expression of the extent of dissatisfaction with current US policy, neither Saudi King Salman nor Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa will attend this week's Camp David summit with President Obama. Oman and the UAE will also not send their respective rulers on account of health issues. The concerns of G.C.C. nations are partially based on the official policy of the United States which calls for increased engagement in Asia, but the defacto policy has been doubling down in the Middle East in many respects. 

Over 35,000 US troops will continue to be stationed in CETCOM despite the draw down in Afghanistan. The Navy will increase its forward operating presence from 30 to 40 ships by 2020. The bulk of these forces will be concentrated in Kuwait which hosts 10,000 US troops and Bahrain, the head quarters of the United States Navy's Fifth Fleet. The United States will greatly augment its facilities in the Middle East through 2021 with $3.5 billion in new base construction efforts. Perhaps the greatest showing of US commitment to the Middle East in recent years has been the irreplaceable time spent by Secretary of State John Kerry as well as other Department of State officials in terms of negotiations, consultations, etc. with respect to regional crises, the Iran nuclear deal, and Palestinian statehood. While the United States should continue with the re-balance, it must frequently underscore its resolve to maintain a sizable presence in the region.  In addition to reminding G.C.C. allies of the substantial assets in the region described above, Washington can take numerous steps to assuage the concerns of gulf allies including drafting a written security pact - which would not require authorization from Congress - and new weapons exports. The United States must also recognize the divisions with the G.C.C. while conducting the Camp David summit on May 14th which provides a perfect opportunity to enact the proposals above. 

Image 4: Cyclone-class patrol boats in the Gulf, a total of 10 Cyclone ships are deployed to the 5th fleet. Relative to its size, the Cyclone-class is among the most heavily armed ships in the US Navy with two 25 mm auto-cannons, 40 mm grenade launchers, .50 caliber machine guns, and Griffin missiles. 

As Helene Cooper states in her New York Times article, "White House Looks to Ease Arab Fears Over Iran Nuclear Pact", a formal treaty alliance signed by Congress is unlikely to materialize. The best the Obama Administration can provide is a written security pact which would have loosely defined terms in which the United States would agree to intervene on behalf of G.C.C. nations if they were attacked by an outside power. Such a security agreement would have to balance the potential for internal conflict within many of these nations as well as Congressional concerns over Israel's security (Cooper, 2015). Overall, the concern of ensuring Israel maintains the most dominant military in the region greatly constrains US assistance for G.C.C. nations, especially in terms of arms exports. 

The F-35 fifth generation stealth fighter is consistently ranked as the top arms export item requested by G.C.C. nations but the United States will ultimately be unable to export the aircraft due to Congressional concerns over Israel. It is possible the United States could sign agreements to export the aircraft after Israel takes delivery of its first aircraft three years from now, if this compromise occurs the first F-35 customer in the G.C.C. would likely be the UAE (Cooper, 2015). While the addition of the F-35 would greatly augment the capabilities of US gulf allies, G.C.C. militaries have significant deficiencies - many of which were made glaringly apparent after strikes in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. In general terms, Gulf states have the assets required to deliver ordinance - such as advanced 4th generation fighter aircraft - but lack the enabling assets which are required to both facilitate and sustain operations. While capabilities vary significantly among the six nations, US Gulf allies generally lack anti-submarine warfare, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and logistics assets. Furthermore, many G.C.C. nations maintain conventional missile forces and anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems but the United States can work to augment and improve existing capabilities. All of the capabilities above would be highly relevant in a conflict with Iran which has become increasingly dependent upon asymmetric warfare as a means to cope with its comparatively small military budget under international sanctions and its limited domestic arms industry. 

Anti-Submarine Warfare

Image 5: MH-60R with variable depth active sonar for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) missions

Iran has continued to invest in its midget submarine force as a means of threatening US and G.C.C. ships in the Gulf. While each submarine is individually limited in terms of payload and endurance, the comparatively small theater of operations and nearby supporting facilities makes Iran's midget submarine force a credible threat to US and allied naval vessels. North Korea demonstrated the viability of midget submarines by sinking the ROKS Cheonan with a Yono-class submarine; North Korea exported technologies from the Yono-class to Iran which subsequently built the Ghadir-class submarine. Despite the increased threat posed by Iranian midget submarines, no G.C.C. nation currently fields a dedicated ASW patrol aircraft with the exception of the Eurocopter AS332 Super Puma deployed by the Saudi Arabian and UAE Navies in limited numbers. G.C.C. nations must address their lack of ASW capabilities with the addition of aircraft such as the P-3C, P-8, and MH-60R. These aircraft would also provide substantial ISR and maritime surveillance capabilities during peacetime conditions. 

Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance 

Image 6: General Atomics Predator XP, a modified export variant of the existing MQ-1 predator 

Operations by G.C.C nations in Yemen as part of Decisive Storm and operations in Syria have shown Gulf allies are heavily dependent upon US ISR capabilities. Saudi Arabia has been widely criticized for having hit civilian and non-Houthi affiliated targets resulting in high casualties. As part of US intelligence sharing assistance with Saudi Arabia, US advisers have reviewed targets submitted by the Saudis in an effort to reduce civilian casualties but the review process is far from perfect (Maria Abi-Habib & Maria Abi-Habib, 2015). Saudi Arabia and its allies must acquire ISR assets such that they are able to identify and track enemy assets independently in order to reduce the unsustainable burden on US ISR platforms operating in the Middle East:
"'Carlisle noted that the Air Force’s current manning problem is so acute that the service will have to beg the Pentagon to reconsider its demand for 65 drone combat air patrols, or CAPs, as early as April 2015...The Air Force has been forced to raid its schools for drone operators to man the operational squadrons that are flying combat missions over places like Iraq and Syria. As a result, training squadrons—called Formal Training Units (FTU)—are being staffed with less than half the people they need...Overworked drone crews have had their leaves canceled and suffered damage to their careers because they could not attend required professional military education courses. The result is that drone operators are leaving the Air Force in droves. 'Pilot production has been decimated to match the steady demand placed upon the RPA community by keeping ‘all hands’ in the fight,' Carlisle wrote. 'Long-term effects of this continued OPSTEMPO are manifested in declining retention among MQ-1/9 pilots, FTU manning at less than 50%, and enterprise-wide pilot manning hovering at about 84%.'” - Dave Majumdar, 2015 [emphasis added]
To retain the current byzantine and overly restrictive UAV export policy in the midst of severe operational shortfalls by US forces coupled with disproportionately increased demand is, to put mildly, astoundingly shortsighted. A restrictive US UAV export policy does not stop, or even delay, the proliferation of UAVs. Other manufactures have stepped in to fill the void in the international UAV market -  despite the preference among many nations American hardware. Saudi Arabia allegedly acquired the Wing Loong UAV, a Chinese medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAV suspiciously similar to the MQ-1, in 2014. The Predator XP is an ideal candidate for export among G.C.C. nations pending reforms to US arms export policy given the XP's alterations with respect to sensitive technologies. Demand for the Predator XP among US allies in the Middle East is high, King Abdullah of Jordan personally appealed to the Obama Administration to allow exports of the surveillance drone but was refused (Gould, 2015). China has subsequently offered armed UAVs to Jordan. Even a unarmed configuration of the Predator XP would be of great value to US allies in the region given that many of these states have the manned assets required to conduct strikes but desperately lack ISR capabilities. 

Additional Munitions - "Conventional Second Strike" & Bunker Busting Munitions 

The United States could provide G.C.C nations with additional conventional deterrence capabilities in the form of the MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (left) which has a 300 km range and either sub-munition or a 500 lb unitary warhead. The UAE acquired 100 ATACMs, 12 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) launchers, spares, and support equipment in 2014 for $900 million. The UAE's geographic position directly across the narrow strait of Hormuz from Iran enables the 300 km range missiles, which comply with range limitations specified by missile technology control regime guidelines, to effectively target much of Iran's coast. Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia could similarly position ATACMs units within range of many of Iran's key facilities. Bahrain and Kuwait already possess either the M270 or HIMARS rocket systems capable of launching ATACMs. HIMARS is particularly advantageous given its ability to be carried by C-130 cargo aircraft which would allow US allies to quickly deploy ATACMs units as needed. Another possible means in which the US can improve Saudi conventional strike capabilities would be if Saudi Arabia continues with its planned purchase of Type 209 submarines from Germany. The Type 209 can accommodate the 150 nautical mile range UGM-84L Harpoon missile which is able to strike both sea and land based targets. As Iran continues to improve its integrated air defense system with either Antey-2500 or S-300 surface to air missiles supplied by Russia, surface to surface missiles will grow in importance as a means of targeting defended sites in the Gulf.

The Obama Administration is considering exporting the 5,000 lb GBU-28 bunker buster to Saudi Arabia as a means of assuaging concerns over Iran's hardened nuclear sites (Taylor, 2015). Israel is currently the only US ally in the region to field the weapon which is capable of penetrating 20 feet of hardened concrete or 100 feet of soil. The GBU-28 would allow Saudi Arabia to target all of Iran's hardened nuclear sites except Fordow which is believed to shelter its uranium enrichment equipment with around 260 feet of hardened rock and reinforced concrete; Saudi Arabia's fleet of F-15S and F-15SA aircraft would be capable of carrying the GBU-28. 

Integrated Anti-Ballistic Missile Shield & Aegis Ashore 

Image 8: THAAD interceptor 

Nearly all G.C.C. nations field sophisticated US built ABM systems such as the Patriot PAC-2 Guidance Enhanced Missile (GEM), Patriot PAC-3, and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Cumulatively, G.C.C. nations are set to acquire over 1,000 PAC-2 and PAC-3 Patriot missiles as well as 288 THAAD interceptors (Defense industry Daily, 2015). Furthermore, Gulf countries maintain state of the art radars such as the 25,344 transmitter receiver module AN/TPY-2 radar which can track ballistic missiles at high altitudes at ranges up to 1,000 km. Despite the individually capable systems employed by G.C.C. nations, Gulf nations refuse to integrate their systems into a broader and more robust Gulf missile shield:
"'You can’t just buy lots of interceptors and park them in the desert,' said Thomas Karako, a missile defense expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS. 'You’ve got to stitch them together into the network and give them plenty of early warning and sensor information so they know where to shoot'...regional politics, military rivalries and even cyber espionage concerns have blocked them from setting up an intertwined missile defense shield akin to what NATO has built and in Europe. There, alliance members have been beefing up missile defenses to protect the continent from long-range Iranian missiles. 'The difference is that you don’t have NATO in the Middle East,' Karako said. 'Really the prerequisite to serious cooperation, to serious interoperability and integration is and always has been the lack of political integration and … security integration like you have with NATO'" - Marcus Weisgerber, 2015
In order to maximize the use of existing interceptors and radars, a networked and highly automated system is required to successfully defeat ballistic missiles from Iran which will have a flight time of roughly 4 minutes against regional targets (Weisgerber, 2015). Given the sensitivity in sharing data among G.C.C. countries, the United States could act as an intermediary by collecting information from G.C.C. ABM sensors and radars in the region and coordinating a response. A somewhat similar agreement exists between South Korea, Japan, and the United States relating to North Korea's missiles and nuclear program; the United States  acts as an intermediary between two parties who were otherwise unwilling to share sensitive data. 

In addition to integration of sensors and existing interceptors, US Gulf allies should consider longer range more capable ABM systems.  The current composition of G.C.C. interceptors relies upon the 25 km range Patriot PAC-3 missile; the comparatively low cost and high capacity four missiles per container  in a Patriot launcher (16 total) makes the PAC-3 ideal for defending military bases or other high priority targets in a limited area but is of little relevance to protecting non-localized targets. Another limitation of the Patriot is it is designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles in their terminal or final phase of descent within the earth's atmosphere. THAAD is a much  more capable system and enables multiple opportunities for interception by providing exo-atmospheric and endo-atmospheric interception capabilities; THAAD has a maximum range of over 200 km and a maximum altitude of over 150 km (Global Security, 2013). Thus, THAAD batteries stationed in the UAE have the potential to protect US regional forces as well as key sites across the country, 

Image 9: Midcourse and terminal phase of US missile shield. With current technology, boost phase interception is not viable though the United States maintains several sensors capable of tracking missiles through the boost phase such as the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS).

Ideally the US should press G.C.C countries to field larger numbers of longer range and integrated ABM systems such as THAAD and Aegis ashore. The SM-3 utilized in the Aegis ashore system, which will be operationally deployed to Romania later in 2015, will field midcourse interception capable 500 km range SM-3 Block 1A and 1B missiles. In many respects, the SM-3 is the most capable and reliable US ABM system which will continue to receive upgrades which will improve performance against intermediate range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Navy's current policy has been to rotate DDG-51 destroyers into the Middle East, Europe, and the Pacific as a means to provide ABM capabilities to US forces in each region. However, the limited vertical launch system  (VLS) capacity of destroyers means that ABM missions detract from other capabilities such as offensive sea control and land attack payloads. The limited VLS capacity for destroyers coupled with increasing combatant commander demand for ABM capabilities, of which 40% the Navy as able to meet in 2014, necessitates a new ABM strategy in consultation with US allies (Bacon, 2015). 
"Today the Navy has thirty-three BMD-capable ships, with plans to increase the number to forty-three ships by 2019. On average, two large surface combatants are continuously deployed in the Mediterranean Sea, Arabian Gulf, and Western Pacific Ocean to provide BMD for partners and allies overseas, which requires at least eighteen CGs or DDGs to support...The Navy should pursue replacing today’s BMD ship stations in the Middle East and Japan with Aegis Ashore to defend fixed locations against known threats. The cost of an Aegis Ashore system is about $750 million whereas a Flight IIa DDG-51 costs about $1.6 billion" - Bryan Clark, 2015
The limited ability of the US Navy to provide regional ABM capabilities will be exacerbated further by sequestration cuts towards eliminating the modernization of five DDG-51 destroyers with ABM capability(LaGrone, 2015). Thus, the Navy will have ever fewer ABM capable ships than planned.

In conclusion, the United States should (1) provide a limited security agreement with the G.C.C. such that the United States could assure Gulf allies of US regional commitment and (2) allow new arms exports to focus towards ameliorating current deficiencies in Gulf militaries such as ASW, ISR, and networked long range ABM systems.  The combination of new arms export and a new formal security agreement would greatly bolster US-G.C.C. deterrence against Iran. 

In addition to Part I: 
  1. Precision Fires Rocket and Missile Systems.
  2. Obama weighs offering Saudi Arabia weapons provided only to Israel, Guy Taylor, 2015.
  3. Iran nuclear sites may be beyond reach of "bunker busters", Michael Ammons, 2012.
  4. Gulf States Requesting ABM-Capable Systems, Defense Industry Daily, 2015.
  5. IDEX 2015: Saudi, Qatari THAAD contracts in the pipeline, Jeremy Binnie, 2015. 
  6. Patriot Fact Sheet, NATO, 2013. 
  7. BMD mission demands outstrip fleet's capabilities, Lance M. Bacon, 2015. 
  8. Navy Again Reduces Scope of Destroyer Modernization, 5 Ships Won’t Receive Any Ballistic Missile Defense Upgrades, Sam LaGrone, 2015. 
  9. SM-3 BMD, in from the Sea: EPAA & Aegis Ashore, Defense Industry Daily, 2015. 
  10. THAAD TMD, Global Security, 2013.
  11. Commanding the Seas: A Plan to Reinvigorate U.S. Navy Surface Warfare, Bryan Clark, 2014. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Deal or No Deal - The Case for Diplomacy with Iran Part I

Image 1: Bushehr nuclear reactor

The ongoing Iranian nuclear negotiations between the P-5+1 powers and Iran has generated a great deal of public debate on the relative merits of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) framework released in early April. While technical negotiations based on the JPOA are not set to conclude until June 30th - and could certainly fail before then, the United States should seriously consider a final agreement similar to the JPOA as it best promotes US interests relative to its plausible alternatives: re-imposition of sanctions with the intent of trying to negotiate a "better deal" or military strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure. The word choice "consider" is appropriate given the final terms have yet to be negotiated. Policies must not be judged in a vacuum, the alternatives to the JPOA are less likely to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. A brief overview of the JPOA details will be provided followed by an analysis of alternatives, the viability of passing a nuclear deal given Congressional interference, and how the United States should proceed if an agreement with Iran can be reached.

The following JPOA details are paraphrased from a Department of State press release
  1. Iran’s stockpile of 10,000 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) would be reduced to 300 kg of 3.67 percent LEU for 15 years.
  2. Reduction in Iranian centrifuges from 19,000 IR-1 models to 6,104 for 10 years
  3. Iran’s inventory of 1,000 advanced IR-2 centrifuges would be mothballed and monitored
  4. Iran would not enrich Uranium beyond 3.67 percent for at least 15 years (90% is weapons grade but the time required for uranium enrichment accelerates beyond LEU) 
  5. Iran's will not build additional heavy water reactors and will limit current operations to hinder plutonium enrichment 
  6. Extremely intrusive IAEA monitoring and full access to Iranian nuclear facilities for 25 years and beyond - while not explicitly discussed by the JPOA, robust US signals intelligence would also assist in determining if Iran does not fulfill its obligations 
  7. Phased sanctions relief, P5+1 will be able to re-institute sanctions if Iran caught violating the deal
  8. Iran will remain a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in perpetuity 
The technical details above produce an agreement in which Iran would have a breakout time of one year for the first ten years of the agreement. Thus, even if Iran reneged on its obligations, the technical and scientific limitations of the enrichment process would keep Iran from obtaining weapons grade material for a year vs. the current 2-3 month breakout time. After a period of ten years the breakout time would gradually diminish until finally after 13 years Iran would essentially become a nuclear threshold state similar to Japan. Clearly the prospect of Iran achieving a nuclear threshold status is less than ideal from the perspective of the United States. However, alternative policies solutions will delay Iran's nuclear program to a lesser degree and will ultimately enact much greater costs to the United States. 

Proponents of additional sanctions argue the United States can force Iran to renegotiate a nuclear deal with more favorable terms such as the near complete dismantlement of Iran's nuclear infrastructure. Any new sanctions are likely to build off of the existing sanctions which are largely underpinned by the US dollar's status as the dominant global reserve currency. The dollar is widely recognized as a medium of exchange that is well regulated and stable (Zakaria, 2014). Thus, 87% of all foreign transactions in 2013 were conducted in dollars and more than 60% of all foreign exchange reserves - the amount of cash financial institutions hold to pay foreign obligations - were denominated in dollars (Bank for International Settlements, 2013). Through the Federal Reserve's licensing system, the United States Government can cut foreign countries off from using the dollar which would severely diminish a country's opportunities for international trade. However, new sanctions are unlikely to halt Iran's nuclear program despite enacting massive economic costs on Iran given the outcome of prior negotiations. 
"Between 2003 and 2005, under another practical president, Mohammad Khatami, Iran negotiated with three European Union powers a possible deal to place its nuclear program under constraints and inspections. The chief nuclear negotiator at the time was Hassan Rouhani, now Iran’s president.
Iran proposed to cap its centrifuges at very low levels, keep enrichment levels well below those that could be used for weapons and convert its existing enriched uranium into fuel rods (which could not be put to military use) ...But the talks collapsed because the Bush administration, acting through the British government, vetoed it. It was certain, Jenkins explained, that if the West could 'scare' the Iranians, 'they would give in.'... Harvard University’s Graham Allison, one of the United States’ foremost experts on nuclear issues, pointed out that “by insisting on maximalist demands and rejecting potential agreements, the first of which would have limited Iran to 164 centrifuges, we have seen Iran advance from 10 years away from producing a bomb to only months.” - Fareed Zakaria, 2015 [emphasis added]
As Fareed Zakaria argues, the technology required to enrich uranium is 70 years old. Even with sanctions Iran will generate enough revenue to fund a nuclear program similar to how North Korea has managed to enrich uranium despite intense sustained international pressure. Similarly, military strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure is unlikely to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon in the long-term. 

Image 2: Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) graphic with predicted assets required to initiative strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure

A strong consensus exists within the national security community that the United States would be capable of conducting successful strikes against Iranian nuclear sites across the country. The strikes would not be swift as the United States would first have to disable Iran's integrated air defense systems (IADS) which include radar sites, air bases, surface to air missile batteries, etc. US forces would then have to utilize bunker busting munitions such as the 30,000 lb GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) to destroy hardened enrichment sites such as Fordow and Natanz. ISR assets such as the RQ-170 Sentinel and Northrup Grumman RQ-180 would assess the damage to Iran's facilities and Command and Control assets would determine if further strikes are needed. Finally, US forces would have to eliminate Iran's means of retaliating against US and allied forces in the region which would include conventional ballistic missile facilities, rocket sites, midget submarine bases, etc. The combination of tactical and logistic hurdles required to successfully target dozens of sites across Iran is a task that can only be carried out by the United States military. However, even a massive US operation against Iranian facilities will only delay Iran's nuclear program from between five to ten years at most or less than the JPOA (CSIS, 2012)

The problem lies in the fact that kinetic strikes will destroy Iran's physical nuclear infrastructure but the knowledge required to resume Iran's nuclear program is diffused throughout the country's scientists and university system. Thus, military strikes against Iran are inherently limited in what they can achieve. Furthermore, strikes against Iran would entail debilitating opportunity costs on behalf of the United States as resources from other operational commands - such as PACOM and EUCOM - would be required to both carry out the initial operation and remain in theater for deterrence operations for years afterward. Greater military commitment to the Middle East is definitively not in the interests of the United States. Especially if further involvement would halt the Asia re-balance which is required to safeguard sea lanes which facilitate trillions of dollars in US maritime trade each year, protect five treaty allies - in contrast none of the Gulf Cooperation Council (G.C.C.) countries are covered under formal US defense treaties, and "manage" the rise of China which has the economic and technological potential to pose the most significant long-term great power threat to the United States since the Soviet Union (though its important to recognize the current US-China relationship is a form of "strategic competition" rather than overt enemies like the US & USSR as well as many other caveats). Finally, US strikes against Iran would grant Iranian leaders with a substantial justification for acquiring nuclear weapons in order to deter future US attacks.

In terms of possible Congressional interference, the United States Senate overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan resolution 98-1 which would authorize Congress to hold a vote of disapproval pending the scheduled conclusion of negotiations in June 30th; Senator Tom Cotton (R, Ark.) was the sole dissenter. Given the nature of a vote of disapproval, a total of 34 Senators are required to ensure an Iranian nuclear deal goes into effect given the Presidential veto - a legislative task substantially easier than marshaling 60 votes in favor of the agreement (Berman, 2015).  The bill effectively enables the President to have a plausible chance at reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran now that the threat of Congressional interference has been substantially mitigated.

In summary, a diplomatic solution similar to the proposed JPOA would be the best solution to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon relative to its plausible alternatives. The deal would buy time for renewed diplomacy and some degree of normalization of relations, but its unlikely the deal will enable a broader US-Iran rapprochement (McManus, 2015). Preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is clearly a US strategic priority but additional sanctions and military action is unlikely to delay Iran's nuclear program in the long-term. Once Iran reaches threshold capacity 13 years after signing any potential agreement, a combination of military deterrence and economic incentives would be utilized to keep Iran from fielding nuclear weapons. The ideal outcome for the United States after 13 years is Iran's leaders decide a nuclear threshold state would provide adequate deterrence given that Iran possess the delivery systems and enriched uranium required to field nuclear weapons quickly if needed. Significant work is needed on behalf of the United States to build upon its conventional and nuclear deterrence capabilities in the region to assuage the legitimate concerns of G.C.C. allies which will be discussed later this week in Part II.



  1. Sending a Bunker-Buster Message to Iran,  Michael Makovsky and David Deptula, 2015.
  2. Analyzing the Impact of Preventive Strikes Against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities, Anthony H. Cordesman & Abdullah Toukan, 2012.
  3. U.S. Attack on Iran Would Take Hundreds of Planes, Ships, and Missiles, Noah Shachtman, 2012.
  4. Controversy Continues Over Iran’s Rockets And Weapons, Bill Sweetman, 2015.
  5. Artful Balance Future US Strategy and Force Posture in the Gulf, Bilal Y. Saab & Barry Pavel, 2015 
  6. The Iran Bill Clears the Senate, Russell Berman, 2015. 
  7. The danger of America's 'economic drone', Fareed Zakaria, 2014.
  8. Triennial Central Bank Survey Foreign exchange turnover in April 2013: preliminary global results, Bank for International Settlements, 2013.
  9. Why the Dollar Is Still King, Milton Ezrati, 2015. 
  10. Nuclear deal unlikely to make Iran a docile U.S. partner, Doyle McManus, 2015. 
  11. White House Looks to Ease Arab Fears Over Iran Nuclear Pact, Helene Cooper, 2015.
  12. Iran, Saudi Arabia fighting bloody proxy wars across region, Zeina Karam and Lee Keath, 2015.
  13. Rebel Arms Flow Is Said to Benefit Jihadists in Syria, David E. Sanger, 2012.
  14. Opinions A nuclear deal with Iran is the best option, Fareed Zakaria, 2015. 
  15. Netanyahu enters never-never land, Fareed Zakaria, 2015.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Threat Analysis of Foreign Stealth Fighters Part III: J-31 Part II

Image 1: J-31 demonstrator at Zhuhai 

Key conclusions from Threat Analysis of Foreign Stealth Fighters: Shenyang J-31 Part I
  • Current J-31 demonstrator is unlikely to enter either PLAAF or PLANAF service in the short term, Shenyang has been described the FC-31 as an export only aircraft 
    • Possible reasons include: insufficient performance, increasingly capable 4.5 generation fighter fleet serving as the low end in the high low mix with the J-20, and risk management in the case of the PLANAF given the development of the J-15 
  • Relatively stealthy airframe, use of planform alignment and DSI but notably lacks rear stealth 
    • degree of stealth likely to be inferior to both the F-22 and F-35 given ongoing quality control issues within the Chinese aerospace industry but still sufficient enough to cause serious concern for American 4th generation aircraft and equivalent aircraft 
Part II will discuss the potential export prospects, avionics, and strategic impact of the FC-31.

Export Prospects

Image 2: FC-1/JF-17. Image Credit: Alan Warnes

Between 2010 and 2014, Chinese arms exports have surged by 143% and accounted for 5% of the global total in 2014. China's past and ongoing efforts to expand its arms industry provide insight towards which countries may potentially acquire the FC-31:
"A significant percentage (just over 68 percent) of Chinese exports went to three countries: Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. China also exported major arms to 18 African states. Examples of China’s increasing global presence as an arms supplier in 2010–14 included deals with Venezuela for armoured vehicles and transport and trainer aircraft, with Algeria for three frigates, with Indonesia for the supply of hundreds of anti-ship missiles and with Nigeria for the supply of a number of unmanned combat aerial vehicles." - SPRI, 2015
Efforts by the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) in cooperation with the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) to export the FC-1/JF-17 indicate China is targeting countries which have traditionally imported Russian combat aircraft.  CAC has offered the JF-17 to Bulgaria, Myanmar, Nigeria, Indonesia, Egypt, and Argentina (Bokhari & Jennings, 2015). It is important to note that while Shenyang produces the FC-31 rather than Chendgdu, both companies are subsidiaries of the state owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) which is responsible for exporting the products of its subsidiary companies.

The JF-17 is pitched as a low cost alternative to Western and Russian designs in the low-end fighter export market with standard 4th generation capabilities and a unit price of $20-25 million (Panda, 2015). The low unit price and fairly competitive capabilities makes the aircraft a viable option in many of the countries above, particularly in Argentina, Bulgaria, and Nigeria where ongoing financial constraints are expected to heavily influence potential acquisitions (Panda, 2015). However, the only country to take delivery of the JF-17 has been Pakistan despite the numerous attempts to export the aircraft in the aforementioned countries.

In terms of how efforts to export the JF-17 relate to the FC-31, it is probable the FC-31 will be offered to countries within a similar profile to those above. Countries which are not aligned with the West or the United States from a security perspective, have traditionally bought Russian or French supplied combat aircraft, and are likely to place a premium on affordability. While China is expected to find an export customer for the JF-17 in the near term, China's relative inexperience in providing logistics and training support to foreign customers is likely to hamper any bids. For example, it took several years for Saab with its low cost JAS 39 (from Sweden) to prove itself as a competitive supplier of combat aircraft on par with more established companies in the field like Lockheed Martin and Sukhoi.

Another potential issue with future attempts to export the FC-31 results from the requirements of expected export customers. While the FC-31 is expected to be much more affordable than the F-35, it will be undoubtedly more expensive than the current JF-17 unit price of $20-25 million. The greatest strength of the JF-17 is its low unit and operating costs relative to Western and Russian equivalents. A few of China's potential export customers might be willing to reduce the number of aircraft required in order to obtain higher quality aircraft but the strategic needs of many of these countries is insufficient to justify a high-end low observable fighter. For example, Nigeria is unlikely to value low observability when its primary concern is acquiring platforms capable of conducting affordable air to ground missions against Boko Haram. As defense aviation expert Richard Aboulafia has argued,  "The worst enemy of the best is the good enough" in the fighter export market. However, if troubles with Russia's T-50 continue, China could find an opportunity to further assert itself among traditional Russian customers with greater requirements than the JF-17 offers.

Image 3: T-50 demonstrator

Russia’s deputy defense minister for armaments, Yuri Borisov, recently announced Russia intends to cut its original order for 52 T-50s delivered by 2020 to just 12 aircraft in the same time frame. While the Defense Ministry's official justification for the reduced order is Russia's ongoing recession, technical difficulties with the aircraft's development undoubtedly contributed to the cut. Sukhoi has been fairly opaque with respect to providing information about the progress of the T-50's development but Indian sources have provided a wealth of information regarding the ongoing difficulties in the T-50's design process; India has spent $5.5 billion financing the development of the T-50 with the intent of acquiring 130-145 of the FGFA variant of the aircraft for a total cost of $25 billion (Raghuvanshi, 2015).
"The IAF's three top objections to the FGFA were: (a) The Russians are reluctant to share critical design information with India; (b) The fighter's current AL-41F1 engines are inadequate, being mere upgrades of the Sukhoi-30MKI's AL-31 engines; and (c) It is too expensive...The IAF's deputy chief of air staff (DCAS), its top procurement official, declared the FGFA's engine was unreliable, its radar inadequate, its stealth features badly engineered, India's work share too low, and that the fighter's price would be exorbitant by the time it enters service." - Ajai Shukla, 2015
While it is difficult to confirm the full extent of the T-50s development issues, Russia's ongoing financial problems combined with India's increasing unease with the program may facilitate Chinese efforts to market the FC-31 in countries which have already expressed interest in the T-50 such as Iran. Despite the ongoing sanctions against Iran, China has already provided equipment and expertise to upgrade Iran's existing fleet of F-4 Phantom aircraft.


Image 4: FC-31 HMD exhibit at Zhuhai airshow

Reliable information on the FC-31's avionics is sparse. The model featured at Zhuhai, not the operational flight demonstrator, featured a similar electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) system  to the latest J-20 prototypes. Furthermore, it is expected the aircraft will feature an actively scanned electronic array (AESA) radar (Minnick, 2014).China has made significant advances in AESA technology over the last decade. China's first generation AESAs were developed for the J-10B and J-16 with the intent of producing a second generation AESA for the J-20 (Feng 2014).

Two major factors are likely to determine the FC-31's T/R module count: the willingness of China to export sensitive technology and domestic technical/manufacturing capabilities. Chengdu's willingness to offer the AESA equipped J-10B to Argentina demonstrates that China is willing to export its first generation AESA technology (Jennings, 2015). In contrast, China enacted an export ban policy with respect to the J-20 in December of 2014. While the sensitive technologies incorporated into the J-20 are more extensive than a second generation AESA, the export ban suggests AVIC will be unwilling to export similarly capable AESA systems in both the FC-1/JF-17 Block III and FC-31.

The article, The Technological Maturity of Chinese AESA Technology & Strategic Impacts, discusses the technical capabilities of the Chinese aerospace industry in great detail. For the purposes of this article, the analysis of the J-10B's first generation radar is largely applicable towards the FC-31. Both airframes feature smaller nose cones than the PLAAF's flanker derivatives leading towards a smaller possible T/R module figure. Furthermore, both are likely to contain 1st generation packing and cooling technology given China's willingness to export both aircraft but not the J-20. Thus, the author estimates a T/R module figure for the FC-31 to be similar to the J-10B's which is likely no greater than 1,000 T/R modules.

Strategic Impacts

Image 5: J-31 demonstrator accompanied by a PLAAF J-11 

The strategic impact of the FC-31 is dependent upon the relative capabilities of the aircraft in conjunction with the countries which will acquire the aircraft. In terms of capabilities, there are significant reasons to be skeptical of claims that the FC-31 will out preform the F-35 given ongoing quality control issues, engine reliability concerns, and the relative inexperience of the Chinese aerospace industry in the manufacturing of fifth generation avionics as discussed in Part I. However, the J-31/FC-31 does not have to be equivalent to the F-35 to pose a significant threat - especially in large numbers. Fourth generation American fighters such as the F-16C/D which will not be upgraded with modern AESAs will be outclassed. 

Countries which are likely to express interest in the FC-31 over the next decade in Africa and Latin America are inherently predisposed to acquire limited fleet sizes due to the FC-31's niche in the global fighter market. Countries with access to greater financial resources or have the required geopolitical ties are more likely to pursue either the F-35 or the T-50. Few countries in Latin America and Africa which China is likely to supply arms are openly opposed to the United States and its allies. The strategic impact of the FC-31 would be greatest in Asia for the United States and its allies if the FC-31 was fielded by either Iran or Pakistan; AVIC has expressed interest in exporting the FC-31 to both countries (Minnick, 2014).

The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) is largely composed of third generation US aircraft supplied during the 1970s before the Islamic Revolution in 1979 as well as remnants of Saddam's air force which fled during the Persian Gulf War. The IRIAF is generally regarded to be an obsolete fighting force and the ongoing lack of spare parts has reduced the readiness of foreign supplied aircraft (Jennings, 2015). The addition of a modern fighter aircraft to the IRIAF would greatly increase the difficulty of Gulf allies in achieving air superiority absent of US intervention.  All Gulf allies in the region field fourth generation aircraft such as the F-15S, F-16C/D Block 50/52+, F/A-18C, and Eurofighter Typhoon, 

Image 6: Dassault Rafale. France and India recently singed a deal for 36 Rafales, ending three years of stalled negotiations. However, many IAF officials do not believe they will be able to sustain the acquisition of both the FGFA and Rafale.  

Pakistan has expressed interest in purchasing between 30 to 40 FC-31s as reported by IHS Janes in November of 2014. In a similar manner as Iran, the addition of the FC-31 would greatly augment the PAF's existing fighter force. The Pakistani Air Force (PAF) has been increasingly unable to match the recent acquisition and modernization efforts of the Indian air force. However, the limited number discussed is unlikely to dramatically change the outcome of a conventional conflict. In terms of equipment, the Indian Air Force will maintain a quantitative and numerical advantage under the assumption that it improves the readiness of its Su-30 MKI force which is currently 56% due to faulty Russian supplied engines

In terms of the deployment of the FC-31 having an impact on the United States, Pakistan is not an overt adversary despite efforts of the ISI to fund select elements of the Taliban in the tribal regions. Furthermore, India is not strictly an ally of the United States given the stringent desire of New Delhi to maintain its non-aligned status. The relative military balance of power between Pakistan and India is of interest to the United States given its security and implications on regional stability.  

In conclusion, AVIC will likely target countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia which have traditionally bought Russian or French supplied combat aircraft, do not have a security relationship with the West or United States, and are likely to place a premium on affordability. The FC-31 will likely occupy a specific niche in the future fighter market among countries which are unable to aquire either the T-50 or F-35 but require greater capabilities than more affordable fourth generation alternatives like the JF-17 and JAS 39. The strategic impact of the FC-31 will be minimally significant in Latin America and Africa for the United States but may cause concern in Asia if both Pakistan and Iran acquire the aircraft. 


  1. Chinese Avionics Advances Ripple Throughout Asia, Usman Ansari, 2011 
  2. Argentina and China agree fighter aircraft working group, Gareth Jennings, 2015
  3. Images show JF-17 flying with CM-400AKG hypersonic ASM, Richard D Fisher, 2014
  4. Bulgaria to be offered JF-17 fighter by Pakistan, Gareth Jennings, 2015
  5. IDEAS 2014: Nigeria 'close to signing up' for JF-17, Farhan Bokhari, 2014.
  6. Block 2 JF-17 makes first flight ahead of Block 3 improvements, Alan Warnes, 2015
  7. JF-17 Presses On After News of Egypt's Plans, Usman Ansari, 2015
  8. Argentina, China Could Jointly Develop Fighters, Wendell Minnick, 2015
  9. AIRSHOW CHINA: CATIC hunts elusive JF-17 export deal,  Greg Waldron, 2014
  10. Pakistan Begins Producing Block-II JF-17 Aircraft, Ankit Panda, 2013
  11. AIRSHOW CHINA: Pakistan outlines JF-17 upgrade activity, Greg Waldron, 2014
  12. China and Pakistan Push Chengdu JF-17 Fighter for Export, Chris Pocock, 2010
  13. China's J-10 advocated as Argentine 'Typhoon beater', Andrew Tate, 2015 
  14. Russia and India agree preliminary design for FGFA fighter, Gareth Jennings, 2015
  15. Defence ministry ignores Russia's requests to discuss fighter project, Ajai Shukla, 2015
  16. Russia can't deliver on Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft: IAF,  Ajai Shukla, 2014
  17. India, Russia Discuss FGFA, Helo Co-Production, Vivek Raghuvanshi, 2015 
  18. With J-31 Flight, China Makes a Statement, Wendell Minnick, 2014 
  19. Trends in international arms transfers, 2014, Pieter D. Wezeman and Siemon T. Wezeman, 2015
  20. Analysis: India faces crunch decision over Rafale, PAK-FA, Reuben F Johnson, 2015
  21. Beijing Banned Export of Its New Stealth Fighter, War is Boring, 2014
  22. Analysis - Iranian fighter programmes: Bona fide or bluff?,  Gareth Jennings, 2015
  23. Airshow China 2014: Pakistan in talks to buy '30-40 FC-31s', Farhan Bokhari, 2014