Russia escalates hybrid war against Ukraine.
Late in November Russian units engaged and took possession of three small Ukrainian naval vessels and their crews as the Ukrainian ships sought to operate in what are generally recognized as the international waters of the Sea of Azov. Tensions remained high in December, as both countries announced their intention of increasing their naval presence around the Russian occupied Crimean peninsula, seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Continued Russian naval action in the Sea represents, as the New York Times puts it, the "slow throttling" of the Ukrainian port of Mariupol. Russian action against Ukraine suggests to many observers that Moscow's territorial ambitions extend to the Black Sea as a whole, and European policymakers are particularly concerned about the conflict in the region. Hacked diplomatic cables from EU sources released in mid-December indicate widespread concern in European foreign ministries that Russia may have introduced nuclear weapons into the occupied Crimea. (The hacking itself has been attributed by many to Chinese intelligence services, but such attribution remains circumstantial.)
Ukraine has increased its electronic warfare capabilities in the region, and, in a gesture of warning toward Russia, the US has resumed Open Skies flights in Ukrainian airspace.
Conflict in Syria.
US President Trump has announced his intention of pulling US forces out of Syria on the grounds that the defeat of ISIS has been accomplished. Early announcements indicated an immediate withdrawal, but these have subsequently been clarified to specify that, first, US forces would remain in Iraq, adjacent to Syria and capable of swift intervention if required, second, that US air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria would continue, and finally that the withdrawal would be phased and gradual, taking several months.
The decision is thought to have been prompted by a mix of concerns about war-weariness, by a conviction that ISIS is indeed finished, and, probably most importantly, a desire to avoid becoming embroiled in a conflict with Turkey, whose forces are engaged with Kurdish separatists along the border that country shares with Syria.
Syrian President Assad has invited Iranian forces to take action against ISIS. The conflict has many parties with very different interests. Tactically it continues to present a complex and advanced electronic warfare environment.
The President's decision to remove ground forces from Syria prompted the resignation of US Defense Secretary James Mattis, whom the President asked to move on earlier than Secretary Mattis's announced February departure. Patrick Shanahan assumed responsibilities as acting Secretary of Defense on the last day of 2018. A permanent replacement has yet to be named.
Satellite security and insecurity.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 put a next-generation GPS satellite into orbit on December 23rd. The new GPS satellites are designed to be more secure, more jam-resistant than their predecessors. There have been demonstrations of kinetic anti-satellite weapons by both the US and China, but the more probable threat is cyber attack, and it's such an attack that GPS III is particularly designed to fend off. It also signals a further convergence of cyber operations and electronic warfare.
The Air Force is also advancing plans for hardening the Wideband Global satcom system against cyberattack. This work concentrates on software and ground stations, and is intended to meet security requirements the Air Force believes cannot be filled by commercial systems.
Hypersonic weapons, undersea nuclear devices.
Russia this month announced development of two new weapon systems which it maintains represent a distinct advance in strategic capabilities that will guarantee the country's defense for "decades."
The first is a hypersonic missile, fast enough, according to the Kremlin’s press agents, to render missile defense systems (and particularly US missile defense systems) ineffective and obsolete. Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov described the “Avangard” glide vehicle as capable of Mach 27. A test shot on December 26th launched from a site in the Urals is said to have hit its target on the Kura range in Kamchatka, some 3700 miles distant.
Avangard is boosted by a UR-100UTTKh intercontinental ballistic missile (NATO code name SS-19 Stiletto). Unlike a ballistic missile, which follows a predictable trajectory, the Avangard is said to be capable of following a complicated flight path. Russian commentators called its motion chaotic—obviously chaotic within limits, if the claims of hitting its target are true—comparing its changes in course and altitude to a stone skipping across water.
The range achieved gives the system strategic reach, within the common understanding of the term. There’s no word on payload, but if one considers that Cold War nuclear weapons had been sufficiently miniaturized to be place in 203 mm or even 155 mm cannon shells, Avangard wouldn’t need to carry much to represent a strategic threat.
The other system is an undersea one, in effect an armed autonomous underwater vehicle. The Russians call this one Poseidon, formerly known as the Status-6 Oceanic Multipurpose System ("Kanyon," in rumored NATO nomenclature). The Russian Navy announced on December 25th that it was carrying out sea trials of the new submarine-borne system. Poseidon might be thought of as a nuclear torpedo designed for use against coastal targets. It’s been the subject of much speculation since September 2015, when reports began to circulate of a “city-buster” carrying weapons with yields in the ten-megaton range. So, a claimed city-killer, perhaps one capable, say the more breathless reports, of inducing an artificial tsunami that could wreak widespread devastation.
Avangard and Poseidon are both the stuff of Cold War, Strangelovian nightmares, and it’s good to remember that most of those nightmares never became reality. A great deal of secrecy surrounds Russian weapon development, and such information as is released tends to be as much an influence operation as are the traditional parades of missiles through Red Square. Good enough to frighten defense intellectuals about a missile gap, maybe, but not necessarily a realistic threat. Decades of guaranteed military superiority is a tall order, and such claims should be received with an open but skeptical mind. Still, both Avangard and Poseidon will bear watching.
Non-proliferation and arms control agreements.
The US has received support from its NATO allies concerning allegations of Russian cheating that accompanied the US announcement that it intended to withdraw from the agreement in response to a long history of Russian evasion and noncompliance. Iran continues to present proliferation concerns. In the case of Tehran there's less unity of opinion about whether carrots in the form of engagement or sticks in the form of tighter sanctions are likelier to move the Islamic Republic away from its widely feared nuclear ambitions. And there are signs from Pyongyang of nuclear brinksmanship, some it apparently designed to achieve some asymmetrical leverage over its long-time but ambivalent sponsor, China.
Space Force approaches.
US policy on the creation of a Space Force approached more clarity this month. Two related, but distinct, developments offer some indication of the direction Department of Defense space operations will take.
The first development involved creation of a unified Space Command, an operational command analogous to other combatant commands, like Strategic Command or Cyber Command. Such a unified command is familiar within the established context of US force structures, and in itself does not amount to a distinct service. It is, instead, a command that reports to the National Command Authority and can incorporate elements of any of the existing military services. President Trump’s executive order, signed on December 18th, in fact re-establishes a command that existed between 1985 and 2002.
Space Force is also coming, and that’s a different matter. The Space Force will be lodged within the Department of the Air Force, where it will be run by an Assistant Secretary who reports directly to the Secretary of the Air Force. The Space Force Chief of Staff is expected to receive a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with the Service heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.
The organizational construct strongly suggests that the Space Force will bear some institutional resemblance to the Marine Corps, a Naval Service lodged within the Department of Navy but distinct from the Navy itself. Estimates place the annual Space Force budget at between $300 million and $500 million. The Department of Defense says it's committed to lean overhead for the new Service, but think tanks are speculating about recruiting, doctrine, acquisition, schools, and so on. A memorandum said to circulating and close to approval reportedly says, "The Space Force shall be organized, trained and equipped to provide for freedom of operations in, from and to the space domain for the United States and its allies” and “to provide independent military options for joint and national leadership and to enable the lethality and effectiveness of the joint force.” The new Service will have combat and combat support functions to enable prompt and sustained offensive and defensive space operations and joint operations in all domains." Space Force will have both active and reserve components.
Congress will still have something to say about the matter. Some Senators remain cool to the idea.
Oracle and Amazon are getting ready to square off in the US Court of Federal Claims over the Defense Department's very large ($10 billion) JEDI cloud contract. Amazon, widely regarded by the industry as having the inside track on JEDI, has joined the Federal Government as a defendant in the suit Oracle has brought to protest the contract.
A new moon race?
China has dispatched an unmanned mission, including a surface rover, to the dark side of the moon. It's a piece of technical virtuosity, and a matter of national pride. It also comes at a time of increased US plans for a return to the moon. Observers suggest that the Chinese mission and the US plans indicate an incipient moon race.
Concerns about industrial espionage.
The US is rumored, as 2018 closed, to be considering an emergency ban on equipment from China's Huawei and ZTE on the grounds that the manufacturers are too close to Chinese intelligence services, and therefore to those services' programs of industrial espionage.
Such concerns have also been felt in the aerospace marketplace. Boeing cancelled plans to build satellites with Global IP, a Los Angeles start-up that had been funded by the Chinese government. Boeing backed out of the arrangement over concerns that the arrangement amounted to little more than a workaround to get past export controls, and that it would have place sensitive Boeing intellectual property at risk.