One of the indefinable characteristics of deterrence is something called “credibility”. The credibility of a state was the confidence that if X then that state would do Y. It made things predictable. Now if the Obama administration says it will disarm Iran or stop North Korea, would it predictably do so?

Iran seems to think the Obama administration will predictably not stop it. Recently Reuters announced that “Iran will pursue construction at the Arak heavy-water reactor, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif was quoted as saying on Wednesday, despite a deal with world powers to shelve a project they fear could yield plutonium for atomic bombs.”

The Daily Beast noted that the “Kremlin cheated on a nuclear pact it signed with the United States, the U.S. government believes—and Secretary Kerry was briefed on the violations almost a year ago.”  He was angered not so much by the violation, as by the circumstance that it made further deals with the cheating Kremlin harder to achieve.

Inside the meeting, Kerry expressed anger and frustration about the Russian cheating and warned that if the violations became widely known, future efforts to convince the Senate to ratify arms control treaties would be harmed. …

Some experts say the Obama administration’s failure to acknowledge the treaty violations publicly or confront the Russians about them openly indicates the administration can’t be trusted to take on potential violations by other bad actors with whom it has struck deals, such as the Iranian government and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

“If it’s true that the Obama administration has not been candid about—or worse, actively suppressed—information that Russia has violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, then how are congressional lawmakers and the American public supposed to trust that the administration won’t do the same if the Assad regime violates the agreement to remove chemical weapons from Syria or if Iran cheats on the Geneva pact on its nuclear program?” said former congressional staffer Robert Zarate, now policy director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.

But violations, shmiolations. To quote Hillary Clinton, “what difference, at this point, does it make?”  Space Daily notes that “activities observed at North Korea’s Yongbyon site indicate testing ahead of a possible restart to a reactor that could provide it with weapons-grade plutonium, the UN atomic agency said Thursday.” Moreover the AP says that new construction has been detected at a North Korean missile launch site.

A US research institute said on Friday that it has detected a new construction at a North Korean missile launch site which the institute says is being upgraded to handle larger rockets.

Commercial satellite imagery shows work has resumed after a months-long hiatus at Tonghae, on the country’s north-east coast, on what looks like a rocket assembly building and a launch control centre.

The findings were provided to Associated Press ahead of publication by 38 North, the website of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

It’s the latest sign that North Korea is pressing ahead with its nuclear and missile programmes despite declaring its willingness to resume aid-for-disarmament negotiations.

In other words they’re cheating. Welcome to the newer world order. The one in which only the appearance of order matters, where the agreement is done for the photo-op.  The New York Times noted that Obama has shifted from “military might to diplomacy”.

At one level, the flurry of diplomatic activity reflects the definitive end of the post-Sept. 11 world, dominated by two major wars and a battle against Islamic terrorism that drew the United States into Afghanistan and still keeps its Predator drones flying over Pakistan and Yemen.

But it also reflects a broader scaling-back of the use of American muscle, not least in the Middle East, as well as a willingness to deal with foreign governments as they are rather than to push for new leaders that better embody American values. “Regime change,” in Iran or even Syria, is out; cutting deals with former adversaries is in.

For Mr. Obama, the shift to diplomacy fulfills a campaign pledge from 2008 that he would stretch out a hand to America’s enemies and speak to any foreign leader without preconditions. But it will also subject him to considerable political risks, as the protests about the Iran deal from Capitol Hill and allies in the Middle East attest.

“We’re testing diplomacy; we’re not resorting immediately to military conflict,” Mr. Obama said, defending the Iran deal on Monday in San Francisco. “Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically,” he said earlier that day, “but it’s not the right thing for our security.”

It’s mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. Despite the Pentagon’s defiance of China’s recently declared ADIZ over the Senkaku islands, the Obama administration will probably want to shift gears to diplomacy.

Michael J. Green, an Asia adviser in the administration of President George W. Bush who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies … said, the United States needs to project military power in the region, build up the defensive capacities of allies like Japan and the Philippines, and align the countries that ring China’s coastal waters to present a united front against Beijing’s aggression.

The trouble, he added, is that “the administration is very worried about appearing to contain China.”

But if Obama wants talk, Beijing is more interested in tangible things.  It is crowding out its weaker neighbors; presenting them with a fait acompli, altering the “facts on the ground” and is consequently acquiring the longer ranged aircraft with which to do so. The Diplomat writes of their latest acquisitions:

The Su-35, even on internal fuel only, offers significant advantages over the Su-27, which is limited to only quick fly-overs of trouble spots such as the Reed Bank (lile tan) or Scarborough Shoal (huangyan dao). The extra time the Su-35 can spend on station is essential to China’s desire to deter action by the Philippines or other regional actors. Such long-range aircraft would be able to “show the flag” for longer, or quickly intercept Philippine aircraft in the region. In the case of the Su-35, it would likely be able to outfly and outshoot any Philippine or Vietnamese aircraft (or surface vessel for that matter) largely rendering competing territorial claims irrelevant.

This is the sort of fait accompli situation that China has sought to create, for example with the “eviction” of the Philippine presence from the Scarborough Shoal and repeated fly-bys of the disputed area in the East China Sea: an overwhelming Chinese presence around territorial claims, leaving the contender with the options of significantly ratcheting up tensions and likely losing any skirmish or accepting a regular Chinese military presence. With the ability to make extended flights over a larger portion of the South China Sea, the PLANAF is likely to increase air patrols. This could lead to more frequent encounters in more places, creating more opportunities for minor crises and allowing China to create new “facts on the ground,” which may serve as the starting point for negotiations in a peaceful settlement. This capability, combined with China’s already significant ballistic missile forces and other anti-access weapons, provides China with a significant trump card and thus acts as a deterrent to military challenges. This gives China the ability to project military power over a larger portion of Southeast Asia and indeed, most of the ASEAN nations.

But China’s neighbors are definitely nervous. They have so little territory they actually believe in the value of real estate.  One of most underreported stories of 2013 has been the activation of a ballistic missile radar on Leshan mountain in Taiwan.

A $1.4 billion missile defense radar has been activated in Taiwan, Agence France-Presse reported on Sunday.

“The radar is able to provide us with more than six minutes’ warning in preparation for any surprise attacks,” air force Lt. Gen. Wu Wan-chiao said to the news agency. The system, placed high on a mountain in the island state’s north, can monitor incoming threats at a distance of up to 3,100 miles. China is said to have about 1,000 ballistic missiles pointed at Taiwan. It has declared the autonomously governed island to be its territory and has pledged to take military action should Taipei seek full independence.

“The system enabled Taiwan to have comprehensive surveillance controls when North Korea launched a rocket in December and the mainland tested its antimissile system lately,” an unidentified armed forces official told the Liberty Times newspaper, discussing radar practice that began near the end of 2012.

“Through the sharing with the United States of the information it collects from the radar system, Taiwan becomes a critical link in the U.S. strategic defense network in the region,” according to Kevin Cheng, top editor at Taipei-based Asia-Pacific Defense Magazine

In another piece of news that has flown under the radar, Japan has enacted tight new security rules to enable it to control leaks to the press. “The secrecy monthly bill, which sped by means of the lower house of Parliament on Tuesday and is envisioned to move the higher home before long, is deemed an initial phase in Mr. Abe’s efforts to turn Japan into what some here contact a far more ‘normal’ nation, with less restrictions on its potential to shield itself and ready to suppose a better regional function.” Japan is rearming. And it is creating an envelope of secrecy such that if  anyone cheats it will be Japan.

The historic enmities of the region mean that feelings can run high. Geoff Wade of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Blog has monitored inflammatory articles in the Chinese language press. The upper limit of belligerence is probably represented by an article found on a Chinese news agency site.

A more troubling example of irredentism can be seen in an article which appeared on the website of the Chinese news agency Zhongguo Xinwenshe (Chinese, English translation here) in July this year. Entitled ‘Revealing the Six Wars China Must Fight in the Coming 50 Years’ (曝光中国在未来50年里必打的六场战争), the article is another manifestation of the hyper-nationalist attitude seen within some parts of the PLA. However, that an article of this nature was carried by a PRC national news agency suggests that it was approved at a very high level.

The six ‘inevitable’ wars suggested in the article’s title are presented in the chronological order in which they will take place:

  1.  The war to unify Taiwan (2020–2025)
  2. The war to recover the various islands of the South China Sea (2025–2030)
  3. The war to recover southern Tibet (2035–2040)
  4. The war to recover Diaoyutai and the Ryukyus (2040–2045)
  5. The war to unify Outer Mongolia (2045–2050)
  6. The war to recover the territory seized by Russia (2055–2060)

Where does this leave the US? The problem for the administration is that force reductions have caused the US military to adaptively change its approach to a more offensively oriented posture. US military planners have come up with a decapitation strategy to counter growing Chinese force projection. Admiral Greenert and General Welsh explain how they are going for the head and nerve shot.

Air-Sea Battle defeats threats to access by, first, disrupting an adversary’s command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems; second, destroying adversary weapons launchers (including aircraft, ships, and missile sites); and finally, defeating the weapons an adversary launches.

This approach exploits the fact that, to attack our forces, an adversary must complete a sequence of actions, commonly referred to as a “kill chain.” For example, surveillance systems locate U.S. forces, communications networks relay targeting information to weapons launchers, weapons are launched, and then they must hone in on U.S. forces. Each of these steps is vulnerable to interdiction or disruption, and because each step must work, our forces can focus on the weakest links in the chain, not each and every one. For example, strikes against installations deep inland are not necessarily required in Air-Sea Battle because adversary C4ISR may be vulnerable to disruption, weapons can be deceived or interdicted, and adversary ships and aircraft can be destroyed.

U.S. forces need not employ “symmetrical” approaches to counter each threat — shooting missiles down with missiles, sinking submarines with other submarines, etc. Instead, as described in the JOAC and Air-Sea Battle, we will operate across domains. For example, we will defeat missiles with electronic warfare, disrupt surveillance systems with electromagnetic or cyberattacks, and defeat air threats with submarines. This is “networked, integrated attack” and it will require a force that is designed for — and that regularly practices — these kinds of operations.

Open source references describe how the USAF has ‘gamed to death’ breaking up the comm links, satellite assets and C3 capabilities of China.  Left to themselves the US military might actually whup China, even in its weakened state. The problem says RAND is that the US military’s offensive deadliness could itself be viewed as destabilizing.

Air-Sea Battle proponents are right to highlight the growing vulnerability of forward-deployed U.S. forces and right to enhance inter-service collaboration. But civilian and military leaders alike need to understand that Air-Sea Battle suggests the United States would strike China before China strikes U.S. forces. That could precipitate a spiraling, costly, and destabilizing arms race and make a crisis more likely to lead to hostilities. The United States needs options to facilitate crisis management, deter aggression, and protect U.S. forces that do not require early attacks on Chinese territory.

RAND recommends a military buildup in order to give the US a bigger design margin to handle crisis situations. “Here we suggest two: Shift toward a more survivable force posture in East Asia and improve the means to prevent China — or any state — from projecting force in an act of international aggression.”

Of course the pacifists would never believe that building up the military actually increases the prospect of peace.

One of the problems with the Obama administration’s increasing reliance on diplomacy is that it leaves unanswered the problem of what to do when the adversary ‘cheats’. But more fundamentally, unilateral disarmament may in fact raise the chance of war. It tempts an adversary to take risks. Less obviously, it puts a shrinking US military in a “use it or lose it” position.

Obama has promised a “world without nuclear weapons”. What he will get is another matter entirely.

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