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Armed Clash in the South China Sea

Armed Clash in the South China Sea
Contingency Planning Memorandum No. 14
Publisher Council on Foreign Relations Press

The risk of conflict in the South China Sea is significant. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines have competing territorial and jurisdictional claims, particularly over rights to exploit the region's possibly extensive reserves of oil and gas. Freedom of navigation in the region is also a contentious issue, especially between the United States and China over the right of U.S. military vessels to operate in China's two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). These tensions are shaping—and being shaped by—rising apprehensions about the growth of China's military power and its regional intentions. China has embarked on a substantial modernization of its maritime paramilitary forces as well as naval capabilities to enforce its sovereignty and jurisdiction claims by force if necessary. At the same time, it is developing capabilities that would put U.S. forces in the region at risk in a conflict, thus potentially denying access to the U.S. Navy in the western Pacific.

Given the growing importance of the U.S.-China relationship, and the Asia-Pacific region more generally, to the global economy, the United States has a major interest in preventing any one of the various disputes in the South China Sea from escalating militarily.

The Contingencies

Of the many conceivable contingencies involving an armed clash in the South China Sea, three especially threaten U.S. interests and could potentially prompt the United States to use force.

The most likely and dangerous contingency is a clash stemming from U.S. military operations within China's EEZ that provokes an armed Chinese response. The United States holds that nothing in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) or state practice negates the right of military forces of all nations to conduct military activities in EEZs without coastal state notice or consent. China insists that reconnaissance activities undertaken without prior notification and without permission of the coastal state violate Chinese domestic law and international law. China routinely intercepts U.S. reconnaissance flights conducted in its EEZ and periodically does so in aggressive ways that increase the risk of an accident similar to the April 2001 collision of a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter jet near Hainan Island. A comparable maritime incident could be triggered by Chinese vessels harassing a U.S. Navy surveillance ship operating in its EEZ, such as occurred in the 2009 incidents involving the USNS Impeccable and the USNS Victorious. The large growth of Chinese submarines has also increased the danger of an incident, such as when a Chinese submarine collided with a U.S. destroyer's towed sonar array in June 2009. Since neither U.S. reconnaissance aircraft nor ocean surveillance vessels are armed, the United States might respond to dangerous behavior by Chinese planes or ships by dispatching armed escorts. A miscalculation or misunderstanding could then result in a deadly exchange of fire, leading to further military escalation and precipitating a major political crisis. Rising U.S.-China mistrust and intensifying bilateral strategic competition would likely make managing such a crisis more difficult.

A second contingency involves conflict between China and the Philippines over natural gas deposits, especially in the disputed area of Reed Bank, located eighty nautical miles from Palawan. Oil survey ships operating in Reed Bank under contract have increasingly been harassed by Chinese vessels. Reportedly, the United Kingdom-based Forum Energy plans to start drilling for gas in Reed Bank this year, which could provoke an aggressive Chinese response. Forum Energy is only one of fifteen exploration contracts that Manila intends to offer over the next few years for offshore exploration near Palawan Island. Reed Bank is a red line for the Philippines, so this contingency could quickly escalate to violence if China intervened to halt the drilling.

The United States could be drawn into a China-Philippines conflict because of its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines. The treaty states, "Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes." American officials insist that Washington does not take sides in the territorial dispute in the South China Sea and refuse to comment on how the United States might respond to Chinese aggression in contested waters. Nevertheless, an apparent gap exists between American views of U.S. obligations and Manila's expectations. In mid-June 2011, a Filipino presidential spokesperson stated that in the event of armed conflict with China, Manila expected the United States would come to its aid. Statements by senior U.S. officials may have inadvertently led Manila to conclude that the United States would provide military assistance if China attacked Filipino forces in the disputed Spratly Islands.

With improving political and military ties between Manila and Washington, including a pending agreement to expand U.S. access to Filipino ports and airfields to refuel and service its warships and planes, the United States would have a great deal at stake in a China-Philippines contingency. Failure to respond would not only set back U.S. relations with the Philippines but would also potentially undermine U.S. credibility in the region with its allies and partners more broadly. A U.S. decision to dispatch naval ships to the area, however, would risk a U.S.-China naval confrontation.

Disputes between China and Vietnam over seismic surveys or drilling for oil and gas could also trigger an armed clash for a third contingency. China has harassed PetroVietnam oil survey ships in the past that were searching for oil and gas deposits in Vietnam's EEZ. In 2011, Hanoi accused China of deliberately severing the cables of an oil and gas survey vessel in two separate instances. Although the Vietnamese did not respond with force, they did not back down and Hanoi pledged to continue its efforts to exploit new fields despite warnings from Beijing. Budding U.S.-Vietnam relations could embolden Hanoi to be more confrontational with China on the South China Sea issue.

The United States could be drawn into a conflict between China and Vietnam, though that is less likely than a clash between China and the Philippines. In a scenario of Chinese provocation, the United States might opt to dispatch naval vessels to the area to signal its interest in regional peace and stability. Vietnam, and possibly other nations, could also request U.S. assistance in such circumstances. Should the United States become involved, subsequent actions by China or a miscalculation among the forces present could result in exchange of fire. In another possible scenario, an attack by China on vessels or rigs operated by an American company exploring or drilling for hydrocarbons could quickly involve the United States, especially if American lives were endangered or lost. ExxonMobil has plans to conduct exploratory drilling off Vietnam, making this an existential danger. In the short term, however, the likelihood of this third contingency occurring is relatively low given the recent thaw in Sino-Vietnamese relations. In October 2011, China and Vietnam signed an agreement outlining principles for resolving maritime issues. The effectiveness of this agreement remains to be seen, but for now tensions appear to be defused.

Warning Indicators

Strategic warning signals that indicate heightened risk of conflict include political decisions and statements by senior officials, official and unofficial media reports, and logistical changes and equipment modifications. In the contingencies described above, strategic warning indicators could include heightened rhetoric from all or some disputants regarding their territorial and strategic interests. For example, China may explicitly refer to the South China Sea as a core interest; in 2010 Beijing hinted this was the case but subsequently backed away from the assertion. Beijing might also warn that it cannot "stand idly by" as countries nibble away at Chinese territory, a formulation that in the past has often signaled willingness to use force. Commentaries and editorials in authoritative media outlets expressing China's bottom line and issuing ultimatums could also be a warning indicator. Tough language could also be used by senior People's Liberation Army (PLA) officers in meetings with their American counterparts. An increase in nationalistic rhetoric in nonauthoritative media and in Chinese blogs, even if not representing official Chinese policy, would nevertheless signal pressure on the Chinese leadership to defend Chinese interests. Similar warning indicators should be tracked in Vietnam and the Philippines that might signal a hardening of those countries' positions.

Tactical warning signals that indicate heightened risk of a potential clash in a specific time and place include commercial notices and preparations, diplomatic and/or military statements warning another claimant to cease provocative activities or suffer the consequences, military exercises designed to intimidate another claimant, and ship movements to disputed areas. As for an impending incident regarding U.S. surveillance activities, statements and unusual preparations by the PLA might suggest a greater willingness to employ more aggressive means to intercept U.S. ships and aircraft.

Implications for U.S. Interests

The United States has significant political, security, and economic interests at stake if one of the contingencies should occur.

Global rules and norms. The United States has important interests in the peaceful resolution of South China Sea disputes according to international law. With the exception of China, all the claimants of the South China Sea have attempted to justify their claims based on their coastlines and the provisions of UNCLOS. China, however, relies on a mix of historic rights and legal claims, while remaining deliberately ambiguous about the meaning of the "nine-dashed line" around the sea that is drawn on Chinese maps. Failure to uphold international law and norms could harm U.S. interests elsewhere in the region and beyond. Ensuring freedom of navigation is another critical interest of the United States and other regional states. Although China claims that it supports freedom of navigation, its insistence that foreign militaries seek advance permission to sail in its two-hundred-mile EEZ casts doubt on its stance. China's development of capabilities to deny American naval access to those waters in a conflict provides evidence of possible Chinese intentions to block freedom of navigation in specific contingencies.

Alliance security and regional stability. U.S. allies and friends around the South China Sea look to the United States to maintain free trade, safe and secure sea lines of communication (SLOCs), and overall peace and stability in the region. Claimants and nonclaimants to land features and maritime waters in the South China Sea view the U.S. military presence as necessary to allow decision-making free of intimidation. If nations in the South China Sea lose confidence in the United States to serve as the principal regional security guarantor, they could embark on costly and potentially destabilizing arms buildups to compensate or, alternatively, become more accommodating to the demands of a powerful China. Neither would be in the U.S. interest. Failure to reassure allies of U.S. commitments in the region could also undermine U.S. security guarantees in the broader Asia-Pacific region, especially with Japan and South Korea. At the same time, however, the United States must avoid getting drawn into the territorial dispute—and possibly into a conflict—by regional nations who seek U.S. backing to legitimize their claims.
Economic interests. Each year, $5.3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea; U.S. trade accounts for $1.2 trillion of this total. Should a crisis occur, the diversion of cargo ships to other routes would harm regional economies as a result of an increase in insurance rates and longer transits. Conflict of any scale in the South China Sea would hamper the claimants from benefiting from the South China's Sea's proven and potential riches.
Cooperative relationship with China. The stakes and implications of any U.S.-China incident are far greater than in other scenarios. The United States has an abiding interest in preserving stability in the U.S.-China relationship so that it can continue to secure Beijing's cooperation on an expanding list of regional and global issues and more tightly integrate China into the prevailing international system.

Preventive Options

Efforts should continue to resolve the disputes over territorial sovereignty of the South China Sea's land features, rightful jurisdiction over the waters and seabed, and the legality of conducting military operations within a country's EEZ, but the likelihood of a breakthrough in any of these areas is slim in the near term. In the meantime, the United States should focus on lowering the risk of potential armed clashes arising from either miscalculation or unintended escalation of a dispute. There are several preventive options available to policymakers—in the United States and other nations—to avert a crisis and conflict in the South China Sea. These options are not mutually exclusive.

Support U.S.-China Risk-reduction Measures

Operational safety measures and expanded naval cooperation between the United States and China can help to reduce the risk of an accident between ships and aircraft. The creation of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) in 1988 was intended to establish "rules of the road" at sea similar to the U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA), but it has not been successful. Communication mechanisms can provide a means to defuse tensions in a crisis and prevent escalation. Political and military hotlines have been set up, though U.S. officials have low confidence that they would be utilized by their Chinese counterparts during a crisis. An additional hotline to manage maritime emergencies should be established at an operational level, along with a signed political agreement committing both sides to answer the phone in a crisis. Joint naval exercises to enhance the ability of the two sides to cooperate in counter-piracy, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief operations could increase cooperation and help prevent a U.S.-China conflict.
Bolster Capabilities of Regional Actors

Steps could be taken to further enhance the capability of the Philippines military to defend its territorial and maritime claims and improve its indigenous domain awareness, which might deter China from taking aggressive action. Similarly, the United States could boost the maritime surveillance capabilities of Vietnam, enabling its military to more effectively pursue an anti-access and area-denial strategy. Such measures run the risk of emboldening the Philippines and Vietnam to more assertively challenge China and could raise those countries' expectations of U.S. assistance in a crisis.

Encourage Settlement of the Sovereignty Dispute

The United States could push for submission of territorial disputes to the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea for settlement, or encourage an outside organization or mediator to be called upon to resolve the dispute. However, the prospect for success in these cases is slim given China's likely opposition to such options. Other options exist to resolve the sovereignty dispute that would be difficult, but not impossible, to negotiate. One such proposal, originally made by Mark Valencia, Jon Van Dyke, and Noel Ludwig in Sharing the Resources of the South China Sea, would establish "regional sovereignty" over the islands in the South China Sea among the six claimants, allowing them to collectively manage the islands, territorial seas, and airspace. Another option put forward by Peter Dutton of the Naval War College would emulate the resolution of the dispute over Svalbard, an island located between Norway and Greenland. The Treaty of Spitsbergen, signed in 1920, awarded primary sovereignty over Svarlbard to Norway but assigned resource-related rights to all signatories. This solution avoided conflict over resources and enabled advancement of scientific research. Applying this model to the South China Sea would likely entail giving sovereignty to China while permitting other countries to benefit from the resources. In the near term, at least, such a solution is unlikely to be accepted by the other claimants.
Promote Regional Risk-reduction Measures

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China agreed upon multilateral risk-reduction and confidence-building measures in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), but have neither adhered to its provisions (for example, to resolve territorial and jurisdictional disputes without resorting to the threat or use of force) nor implemented its proposals to undertake cooperative trust-building activities. The resumption of negotiations between China and ASEAN after a hiatus of a decade holds out promise for reinvigorating cooperative activities under the DOC.

Multilaterally, existing mechanisms and procedures already exist to promote operational safety among regional navies; a new arrangement is unnecessary. The United States, China, and all ASEAN members with the exception of Laos and Burma are members of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS). Founded in 1988, WPNS brings regional naval leaders together biennially to discuss maritime security. In 2000, it produced the Code for Unalerted Encounters at Sea (CUES), which includes safety measures and procedures and means to facilitate communication when ships and aircraft make contact. There are also other mechanisms available such as the International Maritime Organization's Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) and the International Civil Aviation Organization's rules of the air. In addition, regional navies could cooperate in sea environment protection, scientific research at sea, search and rescue activities, and mitigation of damage caused by natural calamities.

The creation of new dialogue mechanisms may also be worth consideration. A South China Sea Coast Guard Forum, modeled after the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum, which cooperates on a multitude of maritime security and legal issues, could enhance cooperation through information sharing and knowledge of best practices. The creation of a South China Sea information-sharing center would also provide a platform to improve awareness and communication between relevant parties. The information-sharing center could also serve as an accountability mechanism if states are required to document any incidents and present them to the center.

Advocate Joint Development/Multilateral Economic Cooperation

Resource cooperation is another preventive option that is underutilized by claimants in the South China Sea. Joint development of petroleum resources, for example, could reduce tensions between China and Vietnam, and between China and the Philippines, on issues related to energy security and access to hydrocarbon resources. Such development could be modeled on one of the many joint development arrangements that exist in the South and East China seas. Parties could also cooperate on increasing the use of alternative energy sources in order to reduce reliance on hydrocarbons.

Shared concerns about declining fish stocks in the South China Sea suggest the utility of cooperation to promote conservation and sustainable development. Establishing a joint fisheries committee among claimants could prove useful. Fishing agreements between China and its neighbors are already in place that could be expanded into disputed areas to encourage greater cooperation.
Clearly Convey U.S. Commitments

The United States should avoid inadvertently encouraging the claimants to engage in confrontational behavior. For example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's reference in November 2011 to the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea could have unintended consequences such as emboldening Manila to antagonize China rather than it seeking to peacefully settle their differences.

Mitigating Options

If preventive options fail to avert a crisis from developing, policymakers have several options available to mitigate the potential negative effects.
Defusing a U.S.-China Incident

The history of crisis management in U.S.-China relations suggests that leaders in both countries go to great lengths to prevent a crisis from escalating to military conflict. Nevertheless, pre-crisis steps could be taken to limit the harmful consequences of a confrontation. Political agreements could be reached that would increase the possibility that communication mechanisms in place would be employed in a crisis. Steps should be taken to enhance operational safety at sea between U.S. and Chinese ships. Confidence-building measures should also be implemented to build trust and promote cooperation.

Mitigating a Regional Crisis with China

Dispatching air and naval forces to the immediate vicinity of an armed clash to defend U.S. interests and deter further escalation should always be considered an option. Such actions, however, must be balanced against the possibility that they will produce the opposite effect, encouraging an even stronger response from China and causing further escalation of a confrontation. A less risky option would be to threaten nonmilitary consequences—diplomatic and economic sanctions––to force China to back off and deter further military action. But here again such measures may only inflame hostilities and escalate the crisis. It is also doubtful in any case whether such measures would be supported by many in the region given China's economic importance.

Several less provocative responses might contain a budding crisis while avoiding further escalation. One option for the United States would be to encourage a mediated dialogue between involved parties. However, while Southeast Asian states may welcome a neutral mediator, China would probably oppose it. Thus, such an effort would likely fail.

Direct communication between military officials can be effective in de-escalating a crisis. States involved should establish communication mechanisms, include provisions for both scheduled and short-notice emergency meetings, and mandate consultation during a crisis. Emergency meetings would focus on addressing the specific provocative action that brought about the crisis. Operational hotlines, including phone lines and radio frequencies with clear protocols and points of contact, should also be set up. To be effective, hotlines should be set up and used prior to a crisis, though even then there is no guarantee that they will be used by both sides if a crisis erupts. China and Vietnam have already agreed to establish a hotline; this could be a model for other states in the region and China. The goal would not be to resolve underlying issues, but to contain tensions in the event of a minor skirmish and prevent escalation.


Against the background of rebalancing U.S. assets and attention toward the Asia-Pacific region, the United States should takes steps to prevent a conflict in the South China Sea and to defuse a crisis should one take place. Although the possibility of a major military conflict is low, the potential for a violent clash in the South China Sea in the near future is high, given past behavior of states in the region and the growing stakes. Therefore, both U.S. and regional policymakers should seek to create mechanisms to build trust, prevent conflict, and avoid escalation.

First, the United States should ratify UNCLOS; though it voluntarily adheres to its principles and the Obama administration has made a commitment to ratify the convention, the fact that the United States has not yet ratified the treaty lends credence to the perception that it only abides by international conventions when doing so aligns with its national interests. Ratifying UNCLOS would put this speculation to rest. It would also bolster the U.S. position in favor of rules-based behavior, give the United States a seat at the table when UNCLOS signatories discuss such issues as EEZ rights, and generally advance U.S. economic and strategic interests.

Second, nations with navies active in the South China Sea—including the United States, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines—should better utilize the CUES safety measures and procedures to mitigate uncertainty and improve communication in the event of a maritime incident. Under current arrangements, observing CUES procedures is voluntary. Participating countries should consider making compliance compulsory in order to guarantee standardized procedures. Countries should also engage in multilateral and bilateral maritime exercises to practice these procedures in a controlled environment before a contingency unfolds.

Third, the United States should make clear its support for risk-reduction measures and confidence-building measures among claimants in the South China Sea. The United States should continue to voice its support for full implementation of the China-ASEAN DOC and subsequent agreement on a binding code of conduct. Beijing needs a favorable regional security environment and therefore has important incentives to work out a modus vivendi with its neighbors, but will not likely do so absent pressure. Agreement on a binding code of conduct will require unity among all members of ASEAN and strong backing from the United States. In the meantime, cooperation should be further developed through expanded ship visits, bilateral and multilateral exercise, and enhanced counter-piracy cooperation. In addition, cooperation on energy and fisheries should be further promoted.

Fourth, the creation of new dialogue mechanisms—such as a South China Sea Coast Guard Forum, an information-sharing center, and a joint fisheries committee—would provide greater opportunity for affected parties to communicate directly and offer opportunities for greater coordination.

Fifth, the United States should review its surveillance and reconnaissance activities in the air and waters bordering China's twelve-mile territorial sea and assess the feasibility of reducing their frequency or conducting the operations at a greater distance. Any modification of U.S. close-in surveillance and reconnaissance activities requires assessment of whether those sources are uniquely valuable or other intelligence collection platforms can provide sufficient information about Chinese military developments. The United States should not take such a step unilaterally; it should seek to obtain a concession from Beijing in return lest China interpret the action as evidence of U.S. decline and weakness.

Sixth, the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement process should be made effective or abandoned. There is a pressing need for the United States and China to agree on operational safety rules to minimize the possibility of a conflict in the years ahead. A more formal "incidents at sea" agreement should be considered.

Seventh, Washington should clarify in its respective dialogues with Manila and Hanoi the extent of the United States' obligations and commitments as well as the limits of likely U.S. involvement in future disputes. Clarity is necessary both to avoid a scenario in which regional actors are emboldened to aggressively confront China and to avert a setback to U.S. relations with regional nations due to perceptions of unfulfilled expectations.
Why Israel Should Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
The Case for a New Nuclear Strategy
Dmitry Adamsky
March 31, 2012

For decades, Israel has maintained an "opaque" nuclear posture -- neither confirming nor denying that it possesses nuclear weapons. The time has come for Israel to reconsider the policy of nuclear ambiguity. It can do so without jeopardizing the nation's security.

The debate over Iran’s nuclear program has made clear that when it comes to nuclear deterrence, Israeli strategic thinking is flawed. In the 1960s, Israel developed a nuclear capability as the ultimate security guarantee, a last resort to be used if the country’s very existence was threatened. This capability became popularly known as the “Samson Option,” after the Jewish biblical hero who, rather than face death alone, brought down the roof of a Philistine temple, killing both himself and his enemies. At the same time, Israeli strategy has been guided by a belief that any adversary developing weapons of mass destruction is an existential threat that must be stopped. This belief came to be known as the Begin Doctrine, after Prime Minister Menachem Begin used force to stop the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981.

This leads to a paradox: the basic potential advantage of the “Samson Option” is that it could deter a nuclear-armed foe. But the Begin Doctrine prevents Israel from benefiting from the “Samson Option,” as it seeks to ensure that the situation in which a nuclear capability would be most useful will never come to pass.
It seems that Israel derives no concrete benefits from its nuclear capability.

Today, the majority of Israel’s strategists promote some kind of a preventive attack on Iran, as they do not believe a nuclear-armed Iran could be deterred and reject the notion of stability based on mutual assured destruction (MAD). Some suggest that Iranian leaders, driven by messianic religious ideology, would use their weapons to destroy Israel, regardless of the costs. Others argue that even if Iranian decision-makers were rational, Iran’s conspiratorial worldview and lack of direct communications with Jerusalem could lead Tehran to misread Israeli signals and to miscalculate, triggering unintended nuclear escalation. Another common argument against MAD is that Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon would result in a dangerous proliferation cascade across the Middle East.

But these attitudes obscure the real reason that Israel refuses to live with an Iranian bomb. Israel’s intolerance of MAD is not limited to any particular adversary or set of circumstances, but, rather, derives from its paradoxical nuclear strategy. The “Samson Option” is by nature an asymmetrical deterrence model: Israel seeks to deter without being deterred.

Maintaining asymmetrical deterrence would be impossible if Iran did ultimately develop a nuclear weapon. But Israel need not see that outcome as the end of the world. If anything, deterring a nuclear-armed adversary is exactly what Israel’s nuclear capability is good for. But in order to make the best use of its “Samson Option,” Israel needs to start thinking about and publicly debating how it would position itself against a nuclear-armed Iran. In short, Israel needs a new nuclear strategy.


For most countries, the primary goal of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others. But Israel’s “Samson Option” has nothing to do with the nuclear balance of terror. The balance of terror, known to most strategists as an unavoidable evil of the atomic age, is seen in Israel not as a strategic challenge but as a materialized, existential, and unacceptable threat. Although the “Samson Option” hypothetically enables MAD, Israeli leaders will have nothing of it. The development of nuclear capabilities by an adversary is a casus belli and demands immediate diplomatic, clandestine, or military preemption. This explains why Israel launched airstrikes on Iraq in 1981 and, reportedly, on Syria in 2007 in order to secure its nuclear monopoly.

Instead, Israel’s nuclear program was allegedly devised to serve as an ultimate guarantor against a doomsday scenario in which an all-out conventional attack by a coalition of enemies threatened the total annihilation of the state. But it is not clear that Israel’s nuclear deterrent has had any bearing on the strategic calculus of its foes during past wars. It did not deter the Egyptians and Syrians from invading Israel in 1973, Iraq from launching missiles on Israel in 1991, the Palestinians from turning to violence during two intifadas, or Hezbollah and Hamas from raining rockets on Israel during the last decade. None of these attacks were kept at bay by a balance of military force that overwhelmingly favored Israel.

To be sure, a nuclear capability would be hypothetically useful if Israel’s conventional qualitative military edge were completely eroded, leaving only a nuclear last resort. But such a scenario is unlikely; the raison d’être of Israel’s national security policy is to retain conventional superiority, and the country is constantly building up its forces toward this goal. Furthermore, at least for the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to guarantee Israel’s military edge.

So if MAD is not an option, and Israel can deter conventional threats with conventional forces, then what is the “Samson Option” good for? It seems that Israel derives no concrete benefits from its nuclear capability. To understand, then, why Israel produced a nuclear capability and crafted a deterrence strategy for a scenario that it cannot tolerate, one has to look at Israel’s unique strategic culture.

Unlike other countries, Israel did not undertake its nuclear project because of geostrategic aspirations, a desire for prestige, or to defend against nuclear adversaries. Even in the late 1950s, when the project was conceived as a so-called great equalizer against larger Arab militaries, Israel’s conventional might was already seen as the main countermeasure against its neighbors. When Israel reportedly crossed the nuclear threshold in 1967, the conventional power of the Israeli army was at its peak, leaving no doubt to Israelis that it could effectively deter its opponents in the future.

For Israelis, security practices and military innovations are usually not driven by strategic theory but by ad-hoc solutions to burning problems and by creative improvisations. As the historian Avner Cohen showed in The Worst-Kept Secret, Israel’s nuclear project was initiated without a careful analysis of the long-term strategic objectives, applications, and implications of this new capability. With little political guidance, the Israelis at first focused only on building infrastructure and capabilities, and avoided articulating complex issues of nuclear doctrine.
If Iran gets the bomb, Israel would need to accept the irony of its security stemming from the constant threat of annihilation.

More than for any perceived security benefits, Israel’s nuclear project was conceived for psychological comfort in face of the unthinkable quintessence of all Jewish and Israeli fears: a second Holocaust. For millennia, life in the diaspora was an uninterrupted struggle for survival. Enslavement, persecution, and systematic annihilation have had a profound impact on the Israeli approach to national security. This fundamental sense of insecurity, a siege mentality that results in the assumption that the country is under a constant existential threat, predisposes Jerusalem to seek absolute security. At the core of Israeli strategy rests the notion that the country can survive and politically engage its neighbors only from a position of military superiority; symmetry in conventional and nuclear affairs is unthinkable.


A number of thinkers, including former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, argue that because the “Samson Option” offers it few tangible benefits, Israel should give up its nuclear project in exchange for Iran doing the same. But this argument overlooks Israel’s strategic mentality. Without understanding Israeli strategic culture, foreign observers cannot fully grasp just how profound the psychological barriers are that Israel must surmount in order to think systematically about how to live with and deter a nuclear-armed Iran.

Given that Israel’s nuclear capability exists to calm the dread of perceived existential threats, Jerusalem would accept nuclear disarmament only as a consequence of a regional peace agreement and normalization, not as a prelude to them. Any other solution would be seen as premature and counterproductive. This approach to disarmament, coupled with an aversion to consider MAD, has put Israel in a strategic bind with regard to Iran.

Whether Israel can stop Iran from getting the bomb is the question of the day. But if, for whatever reason, the Begin Doctrine fails, the far more important question looming on the horizon is how to live with a nuclear Iran. Israel’s security elite is inclined to believe that the end of the country’s regional nuclear monopoly -- brought on by an Iranian nuclear weapon -- would leave it defenseless and vulnerable to total annihilation. But Iran’s developing a nuclear bomb would discredit only the Begin Doctrine, not the “Samson Option.” And in that case, Israel would need to embrace its “Samson Option” and adjust its strategy to derive the most tangible benefits from it.

To begin with, Israel should consider outlining its nuclear posture to enhance strategic stability and assure Israelis that their government could successfully deter a nuclear Iran. This would entail communicating its redlines and how it would respond if Iran crossed them. Israel may be uninterested in full disclosure so as to avoid international pressure to disarm. But Jerusalem can find a way to outline a general doctrine without revealing specific capabilities. An ambiguous posture alone might not be enough to ensure stable deterrence, but a full disclosure could be provocative.

Israeli strategists would also have to explore the relationship between conventional and nuclear deterrence and examine whether the Israel Defense Forces could deter a nuclear-armed Iran more credibly with its conventional might. The optimal balance between deterrence by denial (using defensive measures to limit the effectiveness of an enemy strike) and deterrence by punishment (threatening a heavy offensive retaliation to any attack) should be found and communicated to Iran. Both Israel and Iran would need to introduce a vocabulary of MAD so that each side understood the rules of the game. And to avoid any nuclear miscalculation, each side would need to carefully study the other’s strategic culture.

Today, Israel’s deterrence strategy, like its other strategies, is not a written doctrine but a vague, tacit concept. Any causality between Israel’s actions and its adversaries’ behavior is more assumed than proven. Israel lacks an institution charged with verifying the effectiveness of its deterrence. Jerusalem cannot afford this in the nuclear age -- significant intellectual and organizational energy should be invested in formulating, managing, and evaluating deterrence policy on the national level.

Finally, if Iran gets the bomb, Israel will have to overcome several deeply ingrained beliefs before it can make the necessary adjustments to its deterrence strategy. Israel would need to accept the irony of its security stemming from the constant threat of annihilation. This would entail a fundamental departure from Israel’s habit of seeing absolute military superiority as the key to its stability. Israel’s government would also have to learn to see Iran in a different light. Viewing Iran as a reasonable, if radical, actor would be a jarring departure from earlier beliefs, but it would be a necessary precondition to any kind of interaction between the two countries. Seeing Iran’s leaders as religiously motivated fanatics could lead to a nuclear war.

Israel has sworn to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state, but has not prepared for what happens if it does. So far, Israel’s policymakers have avoided publicly exploring strategies for coping with a nuclear-armed Iran out of fear that talking about the issue would compromise Israel’s nuclear opacity and communicate Israel’s acceptance of an Iranian nuclear weapon. But public debate could generate insights on how to establish stable deterrence and avoid dangerous escalation. It could help Israel overcome the cognitive dissonances of its nuclear strategy, and, in making Tehran familiar with the Israeli mind-set, minimize the chances of miscalculation. This debate should start now, because the cost of waiting until the morning after Iran has a nuclear weapon, if it does in fact acquire one, is too great.
NUCLEAR mayhem can come from rogue states or badly run power stations. That fact escapes nobody in South Korea, just a mountain range away from rocket-mad North Korea, and with Japan’s stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi plant across the sea. But it was a third threat—terrorism—that brought leaders from 53 countries to a summit in Seoul on March 26th-27th. It marked the halfway point in Barack Obama’s four-year initiative to secure and reduce the world’s scattered stocks of bomb-usable plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU). Though attendance was strong, the momentum shows worrying signs of slowing.

This is partly because the terrorist threat has waned since the killing of Osama bin Laden. That disrupted al-Qaeda, which under his leadership sought to obtain nuclear materials. A crackdown on black markets has been a big success. In the 1990s seizures were frequent and measured in kilos. The latest have mostly involved mere grams.

Now the easy targets have been reached. In the past two years, eight countries have disposed of some 480kg of HEU. Ukraine and Mexico have given up all their stocks. Kazakhstan has sealed away 13 tonnes of HEU and weapons-grade plutonium. A few countries have converted research reactors away from HEU. Belgium, France and the Netherlands have cut the amount they make for medical isotopes.

But the summit in Seoul called only for further voluntary reductions by the end of 2013. That is a weak commitment: the International Panel on Fissile Material estimates world stocks of HEU at 1,300 tonnes, plus 450 tonnes of separated plutonium. Although most of this is held by America and Russia (which counts as safe), the rest is scattered throughout more than 30 countries, some of it—according to Matthew Bunn of Harvard’s Kennedy School—overseen only by night watchmen behind chain-link fences. Nobody named names at the summit, but a study this year by the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Economist Intelligence Unit (our sister company) said China, India and Japan scored poorly on security, and Uzbekistan and Vietnam did worst.

Vulnerabilities to terrorism remain. The Fukushima accident made it dramatically clear that nuclear power stations, if they can be knocked out by natural disasters, can also be hit by man-made assault.

The main hurdle to progress is sovereignty. Pakistan rejects almost any outside interference with its nuclear stockpiles, which are increasing (and, in outsiders’ view, poorly guarded). Other countries resent being told what to do. In Seoul America and Russia did little more than repeat their 2010 commitment to dispose of 68 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium. They may need to lead more by example if they want others to follow.

North Korea

President Obama used his visit to Seoul this week for the Nuclear Security Summit to warn North Korea not to go through with its provocative plan to launch a long-range ballistic missile in April. The launch would only "further isolate" Pyongyang, he declared, and would bring neither "the security" nor "the respect" the regime seeks.

All the right words, and yet once again the United States is playing tactical catch-up in response to a strategic move by the North. It appears that the administration was genuinely surprised by the North's announcement on March 16 that it would go ahead with the missile launch. The launch would clearly violate existing U.N. Security Council resolutions and the recent U.S.-DPRK agreement of February 29 in which the United States was to provide food aid (well, "nutritional assistance") in exchange for the North halting provocative missile and nuclear tests and allowing IAEA inspectors into some of its Yongbyon facilities. The administration furled its collective brow and avoided celebrating the February 29 agreement as a breakthrough, but appeared convinced that they had kicked the North Korea can down the road past the nuclear summit and the presidential elections here and in South Korea. The North, no doubt sniffing a certain tactical desperation, has raised the ante.

It is surprising that the administration seems so surprised. As I pointed out in previous postings and in op-eds in the Washington Post and elsewhere last December when Kim Il Sung died, the North has been propagandizing for years about its intentions to become a "full nuclear weapons state" in 2012...predictably around the April 15 hundredth anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth. Speculation that the North's most recent escalation represents a power struggle between hardliners and internationalists in Pyongyang is silly. The North has been consistent and transparent about its intent to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them -- through missiles and/or transfer to third countries (the latter threat was made repeatedly to U.S. negotiators in 2003 and the capability demonstrated with the El Kibar reactor in Syria). Everything else the North does is a secondary tactical move within that longer-term objective, which they see as indispensable to regime survival.

The temptation in the White House will be to continue threatening to throw Pyongyang in the rhetorical briar patch of "international isolation" so that United States and our allies can focus our limited hard power on the more immediate problem of preventing Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. However, Tehran will take note of the U.S. response to North Korea. We should assume that the Mullahs have seen the video tape of Bill Clinton declaring in 1994 that he would not allow North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.

The U.N. sanctions now in place from the North's previous missile and nuclear tests are not being fully enforced -- particularly by Beijing -- and there is pressure short of war that the administration can bring to bear on Pyongyang if necessary. If there are no consequences for the ballistic missile launch, the regime will come to expect minimal consequences for another nuclear test...or another transfer of nuclear related technology. And Tehran will definitely take note.

The Seoul Nuclear Security Summit

The Seoul Nuclear Security Summit

Interviewee: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, cfr.org
March 25, 2012

Some fifty nations are in Seoul for the second round of the Nuclear Security Summit, aimed at keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of would-be terrorists. The first round, organized by President Obama, was held in Washington in April 2010. Michael A. Levi, an expert on nuclear security, says while there may not be a lot of new commitments made at this summit, "its biggest value might be the fact that it has already created an incentive for leaders to deliver in advance." Levi says despite the fact that Iran and North Korea often dominate the discussion on nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism remains a danger. "Nuclear materials that could be used in terrorist weapons remain in dozens of countries around the world, and it's important for us to continue to improve security and lower the odds of a nuclear terrorist attack," he says. "One of the values of a series of summits like this is that it stops us from forgetting about this issue just because we happen to be more focused on the Iranian program or the North Korean program right now."

Is this an important summit?

Absolutely. The Nuclear Security Summit series [a third meeting will be held in 2014 in the Netherlands] was initiated by President Obama as part of a broad effort to focus international attention on preventing nuclear terrorism, particularly by boosting security for nuclear materials. International summits can often deliver less than some people might expect, but one of the key ways they can help encourage action is by holding leaders accountable. By having a series of summits rather than just a one-off two years ago in Washington, the president is able to keep people focused on delivering on their commitments. You might not see a lot of new commitments at this summit, but its biggest value might be the fact that it has already created an incentive for leaders to deliver in advance.

To a layman, the nuclear security issues out there are the North Korean nuclear program and whether Iran's going to have nuclear weapons. Neither of these two countries is at this conference.

And neither those two countries will be explicitly on the agenda. It's important to think about two things when you look at the connection between this summit and those challenges. The first is that we can too get infatuated with the nuclear challenge of the day and forget that there are other ones around. Nuclear terrorism remains a danger. Nuclear materials that could be used in terrorist weapons remain in dozens of countries around the world, and it's important for us to continue to improve security and lower the odds of a nuclear terrorist attack. One of the values of a series of summits like this is that it stops us from forgetting about this issue just because we happen to be more focused on the Iranian program or the North Korean program right now.

Nuclear materials that could be used in terrorist weapons remain in dozens of countries around the world, and it's important for us to continue to improve security and lower the odds of a nuclear-terrorist attack.

The second element here is that by improving security for nuclear weapons and materials, we make it less likely that we will face future North Koreas and future Irans. One way that countries aspiring to nuclear weapons could potentially gain access to weapons is through poor security. So by improving security around the world, we keep the problem at least a bit under control. It's hard enough to deal with North Korea and Iran; we wouldn't want to be dealing with twice as many problems at the same time.

After 9/11, there was great concern about al-Qaeda getting nuclear weapons. Osama bin Laden wanted nuclear weapons. Has the killing of Osama Bin Laden last year made al-Qaeda less of a threat now?

Al-Qaeda is less of a threat not just because of the death of Osama Bin Laden, but frankly because of what the United States did a decade ago to break up the centralized al-Qaeda system in Afghanistan. It's also important to put this in context. Some of the warnings about nuclear terrorism in the wake of 9/11 were overdone; a lot of the claims that we would face a fifty-fifty chance of an attack were rhetorical flourishes at best, and there are a lot of reasons to believe that pulling off a nuclear attack is more difficult and less attractive than a lot of people thought. But that doesn't mean that it isn't a real risk, and because the consequences are potentially so high, it's important that we continue to focus on it, both by securing materials and weapons as the summit is focused on, but also by pursuing an effective counterterrorism strategy, which the killing of Osama bin Laden was a part of. If there was no nuclear material, then there can't be nuclear terrorism, but if there aren't effective and well-supported terrorist groups, nuclear terrorism becomes a lot less likely as well.

Some countries are often cited as dangerous as far as nuclear materials being handed over to the wrong parties, such as Pakistan. Are you worried about Pakistan?

Absolutely. Pakistan presents at least two kinds of dangers when it comes to nuclear terrorism. The first is that Pakistani nuclear security appears to be based largely on secrecy, which means that it could potentially have difficulty dealing with threats from insiders rather than the threats from the outsiders that secrecy and guns, gates, and guards tends to help you confront. The second risk with Pakistan is that instability in the country could broadly undermine the nuclear security system that's in place. Now I don't want to scare people into thinking that Pakistan is about to lose nuclear weapons tomorrow. I think there's substantial confidence now that it has the system under control, but given the risks in the country, it's hard to ever be comfortable. The prime minister of Pakistan, Yousef Raza Gilani, will be at the summit this week, and one of the goals is to get countries like his and others to identify good strategies and encourage them to follow through.

You might not see a lot of new commitments at this summit but its biggest value might be the fact that it has already created an incentive for leaders to deliver in advance.

Even though the North Koreans are not at the meeting, inevitably the topic of North Korea is going to come up, at least outside the conference, because of the country's announcement that it plans to launch a space satellite in the middle of April. What do you think will happen on the North Korean issue?

I expect leaders to discuss the North Korean issues on the sidelines quite intensively. I don't expect it be a part of the main summit. Frankly, if the summit communiqué were to spill beyond security for nuclear weapons and materials and into specific countries' nuclear programs, there would be enormous pressure from many of the participants to also say something, not only about North Korea and Iran, but also the Israeli nuclear program. Since the Israelis will be there and won't sign on to that, I don't see anyone going down that road. But there will be a lot of discussion. There is a lot of concern about what's happening in North Korea. Pyongyang talks about a space satellite test, but that's essentially indistinguishable from a long-range missile test. And there is good reason to believe that anything that can strain North Korea's ability to test long-range missiles will also strain its ability to develop those missiles to the point that they actually work and can threaten targets well away from their borders.

North Korea signed an agreement with the United States in February in which it would get food assistance in return for halting its nuclear program and stopping the long-range missile tests. Why would they go ahead now with the satellite launch?

The North Koreans are still testing the world. There is probably some incoherence internally. It's striking if you look at the numbers--the cost of this missile program and test. It's well in excess of what it costs to feed the North Korean people for a year. So while the world is being forced to save North Koreans from starvation, its government is pursuing these programs that will just bring further isolation. There's clearly a lack of certainty in Pyongyang both about where it wants to go and about what it can get away with. And sometimes when leaders aren't sure what they can get away with, they try different things and they feel out the international community's response. I can't imagine that someone woke up and said, "We must celebrate Kim Il-sung's birthday; what shall we do?" and someone else said, "Well, it would be fitting to launch a space vehicle." I suspect that there's a broader, deeper, strategic motivation.

What about discussions between the United States and Russia at this meeting?

The United States and Russia are closer to being on the same page than other large participants. Remember, the United States and Russia have been working together to cooperate on nuclear security, since before the fall of the Soviet Union and far more intensively in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union [1992]--that's twenty years of experience that this summit series is partly intended to export to other countries. So Russia is a strategic ally in a lot of ways for the United States in this effort, because it can show other countries how to take effective action. This isn't to say that there's not more that Russia needs to do and can do. It isn't to say that there isn't more that the United States needs to do and can do. But both of them have much better experience than others and can actually be strong partners in this effort.

Is there any threat from the former Soviet republics like Belarus and Ukraine?

There's still nuclear material in many of the former Soviet republics, and there are ongoing efforts to make sure the security for those materials is as strong as possible. That's been a concern since the fall of the former Soviet Union, and it's not something that has been fully dealt with yet.

I have often heard about black marketers.

Right. We can get a bit of sense of some of this from the Nuclear Threat Initiative (PDF), a comprehensive rating of different countries on their effectiveness in nuclear security for weapon-usable materials. They looked at thirty-two different countries--the United States, for instance, ranked thirteenth; Ukraine ranked fifteenth, so pretty close; Belarus, sixteenth, Kazakhstan was twenty-second, Uzbekistan was twenty-sixth. So the former Soviet republics are at a range of different positions. Some of the eastern European countries performed extremely well on this assessment. Hungary registered as the second best in the world; the Czech Republic registered as number three in the world. So there's quite a range. Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea come last.

Who is first?

Australia. And this is important--Australia has done well on nuclear security not only because it has better protection for its materials, but because it's actually consolidated and downsized the set of materials that it needs to protect. The easiest way to improve security for nuclear weapons and materials is to get rid of them.

Behind Japan's Big Arms Buy

Behind Japan's Big Arms Buy
How Washington Is Militarizing Its Asian Ally
Humza Ahmad
March 22, 2012

With India planning to buy $100 billion worth of new weapons over the next ten years, arms sales may be the best way to revive Washington's relationship with New Delhi, its most important strategic partner in the region.

Last December, Tokyo announced that it would purchase Lockheed-Martin's F-35 Lightning II as its next-generation jet fighter. In doing so, it disappointed BAE Systems, the European maker of the Eurofighter Typhoon, which had hoped to win the $4.7 billion contract itself. For a while, it seemed as though it might. The Lockheed deal had its downsides: Initially, Japanese firms would have played no role in producing the new jets; likewise, they would not have had access to the secret technologies used in the F-35's design. It was not until Lockheed agreed to allow domestic contractors to participate in building the new jets and share some top-secret technologies that Japan decided to make the deal. In retrospect, that move should never have been in much doubt. The contract closely follows Japanese defense policy precedent: acquiring the most advanced American military hardware available under licensing agreements, producing that hardware in Japan to boost the economy, and keeping the U.S.-Japan alliance tight, positing Japan as a buffer between the United States and the region's major powers.

Japan has filled this role for decades. In 1946, during the United States' postwar occupation of Japan, General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander for the Allied Powers, insisted that the country's new constitution include a clause barring Japan from maintaining war-making capabilities. In return, Washington would protect Japan from outside attack and maintain a sizeable military presence there to do so. When the Korean War broke out, the number of U.S. troops in Japan dwindled as soldiers were moved from Japan to fight on the Korean peninsula. Realizing that the force it could afford to retain in Japan was not sufficient for maintaining order or fending off a communist infiltration, the United States pressured Japan to relax the ban on maintaining military forces. Under the guidance of the U.S.-dominated Allied General Headquarters, the country created a paramilitary force, the National Police Reserve (which gradually morphed into the Self-Defense Forces, or SDF, Japan's main military organization today). Meanwhile, military production contracts from U.S. firms poured into the country. For example, during the three years of the Korean War, 235 Japanese companies produced $500 million worth of ammunition for the U.S. military.
The technology transfers were profitable for U.S. firms and helped create a prosperous industrial Japan to serve as an economic bulwark against communism in Northeast Asia.

As Japanese factories built military hardware on license from U.S. defense firms, the country's heavy industrial companies picked up the know-how to create cutting-edge domestic civilian technologies. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, the highly reinforced plastics originally designed to build the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter found their way into Mitsubishi's YS-11 and MU-2 turboprop aircraft. And Japanese experience with U.S. jet engine bearing technology -- which allows mechanical parts to work at high speeds -- played an important role in the development of the country's iconic Shinkansen bullet trains. Soon, producing military hardware under license from the United States and then reaping the civilian technological and economic benefits became a cornerstone of Japanese foreign arms procurement policy: When negotiating arms deals with the United States, Tokyo often requested that specific processes -- such as quality testing, metal bending, and the development of cameras, tires, engines, and synthetic materials -- take place in Japan so that Japanese firms could build experience in those lucrative fields. Producing the F-35's fuselage and studying its stealth technology, too, will also give Japanese defense contractors a leg up. Already, Mitsubishi is producing a prototype one-third-scale stealth aircraft, the Mitsubishi ATD-X Shinshin, and the project will surely benefit from familiarity with the inner workings of the F-35.

The United States has also benefited from transferring technology to Japan. First, the process was profitable for U.S. firms and helped create a prosperous industrial Japan to serve as an economic bulwark against communism in Northeast Asia. No less important, Japan eventually became a U.S.-outfitted military bulwark in the region as well. That took more time, but Washington actively encouraged the dependency by limiting Japan's experimentation with developing its own advanced military technologies that would cut into U.S. exports to Japan. In the mid-1980s, for example, Japan launched the FSX program, which set out to build a domestic fighter jet. But Washington quickly pressured Japan to turn the FSX program into a joint U.S.-Japanese venture; U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger both appealed to the Japanese government, citing balance of trade concerns. Even today, much of Japan's most advanced military hardware is of U.S. design. In short, the United States simply needs Japan as an ally (to act as a base for its Seventh Fleet and safeguard U.S. interests in the region) and Japan needs the United States (for protection).

For the most part, this relationship has worked out well. Over the past half-century, the strategic goals of the United States and Japan in the region have overlapped. The SDF initially took a "westward"-facing posture -- SDF installations were more heavily armed and staffed in the northwest of the country, along the Sea of Japan, to repel the Soviet Union and its erstwhile ally, China. After U.S. President Richard Nixon's 1972 trip to China, the People's Republic fell off Japan's defense radar. Japan's wariness of China waned during this period and its sights trained squarely on the USSR.

Then, with the end of the Cold War and the beginning of China's astronomical rise, Tokyo shifted its attention again: Personnel and defense equipment were shipped to Japan's southern bases to ward off China around Japanese islands in the South China Sea. Since the 1970s, Beijing has claimed sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands there, which Japan considers integral territory, and which have significant mineral deposits and profitable fishing sites. Since China started flexing its economic and military muscles in the 1990s, the United States' sense of urgency in deflecting China has grown, too.

The 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century thus saw Japan's continued licensed production of advanced U.S.-designed military hardware. The most strategically significant of these projects were the Aegis destroyers -- a highly advanced naval guided missile system designed by Lockeed-Martin, and a key component of Japan’s ballistic missile defense system, which was jointly developed with the United States. First, in 1993, Japan built its Kongo class guided-missile destroyers, which were equipped with the Aegis fire-control system, and were based on the U.S. Flight I Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. In the late 2000s, Japan produced an updated guided missile destroyer, the Atago class, which was based on the Flight IIA Arleigh Burke and also produced in Japan under license.

The Japan-built Aegis destroyers, the jointly developed missile-defense system, and, now, in the new F-35 program, allow the United States to engage in an arms race with China by proxy, checking China while cutting its own defense budget by an announced $487 billion over ten years. This paradigm also allows Japan to engage in saber rattling without breaking its constitutionally bound pacifist principles since guided missiles, ballistic missile defense systems, and stealth fighters can all be considered as part of a comprehensive defense-only arsenal. Accordingly, on March 19, Japanese Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka warned that if North Korea's satellite launch, which is scheduled for April 12-16, was deemed to pose a threat to Japan, Tokyo would not hesitate to use its ballistic missile defense system to bring it down.

The F-35 continues a decades-long trend of Japanese policymakers continuously reinterpreting the country's constitution to allow for an expanding SDF role both within Japan and in the broader region. To date, the SDF has participated in international peacekeeping missions, antiterror activities, and anti-piracy operations. But it is still not quite a military. Shooting down DPRK ballistic missiles, whether they carry satellites or not, moves Japan one step closer to possessing a true military with the will and ability to project power.

Even so, the gradual expansion of the SDF's roles and capabilities need not create frictions between the United States and Japan. For one, the F-35 is being developed jointly by several nations, and the number of potential buyers has been increasing, thus reducing pressure on Japan to buoy foreign sales of U.S. defense hardware. Additionally, Japan will work with the United States, Australia, and others to produce the F-35. As ever, joint development will allow the United States and Japan to profit mutually from Japanese military modernization, as well as benefit from a united front toward China's rise.

To be sure, the F-35 purchase decision was met with some surprise and opposition by both domestic and foreign observers. Many felt that the project might be technically disappointing and that it would too greatly increase Japan's defense spending. Alessio Patalano, a lecturer in war studies at Kings College, has called the F-35 "unfinished, untested, and astronomically expensive" and wrote in the Asahi Shimbun that "the dilemma for Japanese policymakers is evident: are they ready to risk [investing] in a product with no real guarantee (at the moment) to meet the core requirement of Japan's own effort to procure the best means to defend the archipelago?" None of these reasons, however, changes the fact that the United States and Japan share a common interest in the region -- countering China -- and that a strong U.S.-Japanese alliance, bolstered by Japan's procurement of highly advanced weapons from the United States, is the most effective check on Chinese expansion in the region. As long as the two countries' regional interests continue dovetail, that strategic logic will win out.

The Real Tragedy of Afghanistan

The Real Tragedy of Afghanistan

Two stories in the Washington Post on Saturday should be read in tandem for insight into how we might best interpret the recent killing of sixteen Afghan civilians by a U.S. combat staff sergeant. The first, the paper’s lead story, identified the alleged killer as thirty-eight-year-old Robert Bales, a trained army sniper who had served three tours in Iraq before his Afghan deployment and had suffered combat wounds during his overseas assignments. Bales is accused of leaving his base in Kandahar province, engaging in the house-to-house killing spree, then returning to the base and turning himself in. He could face the death penalty.

The Post probes the man and his background in an effort to perhaps shed some light on why a seemingly normal soldier would engage in such a grisly business. The paper quotes Bales’s lawyer, John Henry Browne, as saying Bales didn’t want to deploy to Afghanistan in December, had experienced post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his previous deployments and suffered a head injury during one of his Iraq tours. Also, just hours before the killing spree, he had witnessed a friend lose a leg in an explosion.

Inevitably, the Post piece, like other major news stories on the same day, engaged in some speculation on how and why such behavior could emerge in a soldier with a solid record. In 2007, Bales was part of an extensive battle in southern Iraq—later described by army officials as “apocalyptic”—in which 250 enemy soldiers were killed and eighty-one wounded while Bales’s unit experienced no casualties. We learn also, however, that he had been disappointed when he didn’t get promoted to sergeant first class. In Washington state, where his unit was based, he had a record of minor legal infractions, including misdemeanor assault and a one-car traffic rollover.

The Post suggests some veterans’ groups fear Bales’s case will place into the American consciousness an image of “a crazy veteran gone wild.” It quotes an official of the Veterans of Foreign Wars as saying, “The main concern is that we’ll be back where we started with a stigma that all veterans that return are broken in some way.” This was reinforced by a New York Daily News headline: “Sergeant Psycho.” Tom Tarantino, deputy policy director at a group called Iraq and Afghanistan of America, says we are left with “this wired mind-set in the public consciousness and immediately everyone goes to the `Sergeant Psycho’ thing. . . . We need to try to make sense of this tragedy, and it’s extremely difficult to do so. And that’s the problem.”

The problem is that nobody can make sense of such a thing. We will see in coming days and weeks reams of analysis about Bales’s head injury, his post-traumatic stress difficulties, the accumulated anguish of war. There will be accusations against his superiors for not identifying the symptoms that led to such vicious behavior. Indeed, the Post quotes one self-confident psychiatrist who has worked with veterans as stating flatly that this was “a presumptive case of leadership failure.”

None of this speculation and analytical probing will be worth much at all. The search for broader lessons in such warped actions is always futile and often irresponsible. Was it the head injury? The traumatic stress of combat? The inattentive superiors? We’ll never know, and there’s no point in speculating. Certainly, it would be irresponsible to try to assess blame elsewhere for one man who clearly snapped for whatever reason, or perhaps no reason.

But the episode does present an occasion for asking what Sergeant Bales and his fellow combatants were fighting for over the past decade. When his country sent the man back into combat for the fourth time in eight years, what was the purpose, and what had been accomplished toward that purpose through his previous three tours?

For insight into answers to that question, we turn to the second Post piece, by Alice Fordham. Its headline: “Resentment simmers among Iraq’s Sunnis: Country’s sectarian tensions exacerbated by uprising in neighboring Syria.”

The article says that nine years after the fall of its most famous son, Saddam Hussein, the city of Tikrit, in the Sunni-majority province of Salahuddin, “is a decrepit, angry place, and its mostly Sunni population, feeling alienated from the Shiite-led central government, is calling for more independence.” The article presented a picture of Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and his government engaging in progressively discriminatory policies against the Sunnis and working to “sideline the Iraqiya political bloc, for which most Sunnis voted in 2010 elections.”

Fordham writes that Maliki’s actions are “threatening sectarian co-existence in Iraq at a crucial time for the region.” She raises the specter of a “dangerously factionalized country.” Essentially, Salahuddin and neighboring Diyala province, both predominately Sunni, wish to exercise their constitutional prerogative of breaking off from the Baghdad government to a significant degree and operating under much greater autonomy, much as the northern Kurdistan region already is doing. Whether the Maliki government will allow this is an open question that hangs over the nation like a deadly sword. Fordham doesn’t say it, but some see a deepening prospect of civil war in the country.

As we contemplate the legacy of the U.S. experience in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, it is worth noting the distinction between this ominous picture of the civic situation there and the heady optimism and idealism that attended George W. Bush’s dramatic decision to conquer that land and liberate it from the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Then many Americans, stirred by the rhetoric of Bush and his retinue, saw a new dawn of Middle East democracy just on the horizon. As Bush famously said in his second inaugural address, the United States aimed to “seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

How quaint and silly that seems as we contemplate the true legacy of America’s eight-year war in Iraq, with our troops gone now and the country barely managing to avert a bloody civil war—and as we contemplate the almost desperate American effort to leave Afghanistan after ten years with some semblance of stability and peace in that troubled land. Of course, the United States says it must obliterate al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and ensure that the Taliban insurgency never regains sufficient territory to provide a safe haven for future al-Qaeda operations. But the old al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden is essentially dead, and the anti-Taliban mission is already a failure, as reflected in President Obama’s efforts to negotiate an accommodation between the insurgency forces and the Kabul government so he can bring U.S. troops home.

Which brings us back to Sergeant Bales and the hundreds of thousands of other U.S. combat soldiers who logged multiple tours in those countries in behalf of a war effort based on mushy ideals and no concrete concept of victory. What is it like, we might ask ourselves, to be sent back into such bloody and chaotic combat situations multiple times in the course of a decade without any end in sight and without a clear definition of what the U.S. fighting effort is really all about?

The pressures and fears and disgusts of such an experience may indeed have contributed to Bales’s bloody rampage. But place that aside as being in the realm of the unknowable and hence not in the realm of worthy exploration. But it is a worthy occasion to contemplate the magnitude of what we are asking of our young military professionals as we send them back, again and again, into combat environments ultimately seen as devoid of any clear and attainable mission concept.

Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy.

A Tragedy in Toulouse

A Tragedy in Toulouse
Could a series of seemingly race-inspired killings in France upend the presidential election?

PARIS – Just as the week was beginning in southwestern France, on March 19, a man appeared at the entrance of a small Jewish school in Toulouse wielding a pair of powerful guns, including a semi-automatic pistol. As parents dropped off their children on the sidewalk, or left to take younger kids to other nearby schools, the first shots rang out -- every parent's worst nightmare. He continued into the Ozar Hatorah middle and high school, where he shot at adults and children, witnesses said in French radio and television interviews, sometimes at nearly point-blank range.

Unlike many American-style school attacks, in which assailants just go deeper and deeper into the carnage until they are killed by responding authorities or they shoot themselves, the Jewish school killer finished his loathsome business, went outside to his white motor scooter, and rode off.

The public prosecutor of Toulouse, Michel Valet, brought the horror of the cold-blooded killer home. "He shot at everything there was in front of him, children and adults," Valet said before reporters in Toulouse, "and some children were followed inside the school."

The death toll included a 30-year-old Franco-Israeli professor of Judaism who had recently moved back to France from Jerusalem, his two sons, and another girl. The oldest of the murdered children was reportedly seven years old. The youngest was just four. (A 17-year-old is also seriously wounded.)

In isolation, the attack might appear to be the act of a lunatic, probably an anti-Semitic one, but an array of factors make this attack into something even more troubling, particularly that it is the third murderous attack in eight days -- and that all seem to be linked to race and/or religion.

The first attack came on March 11, when a man responded to an online advertisement by a French soldier selling a motorcycle. But, authorities believe that instead of buying the bike, the man shot the soldier in cold blood. Four days later, a man wearing a motorcycle helmet attacked three off-duty military paratroopers as they withdrew cash from a bank machine in the town of Montauban, near their base, some 35 miles from Toulouse. That attack killed two soldiers and left a third struggling for his life. The three dead soldiers are all of North African descent, while the gravely injured survivor is from a French territory in the Caribbean. They are all dark-skinned.

Barely a dozen hours after the Jewish school attack, authorities concluded that the seven killings were the work of the same man using at least one of the same guns and who rode the same motor scooter, although repainted white for the March 19 attack.

Before Monday's attack at the Jewish school, some 50 investigators were already working to track the killer. By nightfall, there were well over 150, backed by cyber investigators pursuing the first victim's digital interactions with the prospective "buyer."

As France struggled to understand who might execute defenseless off-duty army men from minority backgrounds and small children, two main theories have arisen.

The first is that the culprit is a current or former soldier with a murderous racist streak. (The powerful .45 caliber automatic pistol he carried is fairly rare in France outside of shooting clubs.) Urban video footage and an eyewitness' account of the bank-machine killings suggest that the murderer kept his cool while executing people in public in broad daylight. Following that attack, police using an array of security cameras in the area figured out routes that he did and did not take, and at which speeds, leading them to surmise that he had a detailed knowledge of the area. They also concluded that he wielded his weaponry with expertise. (Analysis suggests that the paratroopers didn't have a chance to defend themselves or escape.) Police found no signs of DNA or fingerprints on a discarded gun cartridge, and witnesses describe a fit, agile, and supremely self-confident attacker.

In the midst of a particularly grim political campaign and barely a month before the French begin to vote for their next president, the French political class suddenly downshifted in respectful acknowledgment of a particularly grim national tragedy. François Hollande's spokesman announced that he was temporarily suspending his campaign -- just before Hollande himself traveled to the school, where parents sobbed out front, along with Israeli ambassador Yossi Gal, and the mayor of Toulouse. They arrived after President Nicolas Sarkozy, who made it to Toulouse barely three hours after the attack. It was a "national tragedy," Sarkozy said in a live broadcast from the site, and he promised a minute of silence in French schools the following day. "Barbarity, cruelty and hatred cannot win," the president said. France, he added, is "stronger than that."

By the end of the day, Sarkozy had also suspended his campaign, at least until Wednesday -- and both he and Hollande were among the thousands who showed up at Paris's third-largest synagogue for a religious ceremony just a half day after the attack.

Prior to the Jewish school attack, anti-racism groups had been pointing to what they saw as the troubling xenophobic, anti-Muslim, and perhaps even anti-Semitic subtext of the presidential campaigns by the far-right National Front party as well as Sarkozy's "respectable right" ruling party. Both have criticized Muslims -- and, to a lesser extent, Jews -- during the controversy over halal and kosher meat. And both have called for stark reductions in legal immigration to France. (The far right wants a 90 percent drop, while Sarkozy's UMP has said that 50 percent is the most that is possible.) Prominent figures in both parties have amalgamated immigration and crime, despite the absence of any legitimate statistics on the matter.

The other dominant theory about the killer is that he could be a radical Islamist -- whether a lone wolf inspired from afar or someone affiliated with an international power structure -- who took aim at the soldiers as a message to France about its military policy abroad, and at the Jewish school to get back at Israel. There is no shortage of aspects of French foreign policy that might create enemies these days, from the ongoing French military presence in Afghanistan to the successful efforts to help overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya to intensifying political sanctions in Iran to the Élysée's desire for regime change in Syria.

French anti-terrorism investigators are investigating all three attacks. The main international wing of al Qaeda, of course, has not hesitated to target against Muslims (like the French paratroopers of North African extraction) when it believes them to be spiritual traitors. And terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda have a track record of engaging in attacks during sensitive electoral moments.

In 2004, terrorists loosely affiliated with al Qaeda bombed morning commuter trains in Spain, killing 191 passengers and wounded more than 1,500 -- just three days before national elections. The conservative ruling party's deceptive handling of that investigation in the days before the vote -- they continued to suggest, for politically expedient reasons, that the attack was the work of Basque separatists even after they had extensive information pointing toward Islamic radicals -- led them to lose an election that they had seemed set to win. The incoming Socialist government quickly pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq, as it had promised and as the vast majority of Spaniards wanted. But it was also what those who inspired the Madrid bombers had hoped for.

Since the 9/11 attacks in the United States, France has, with its top-notch anti-terror squad and intelligence, managed to avoid the sort of brutal attacks that al Qaeda affiliates orchestrated in Spain and then in Britain the following year.

But France has extensive experience with radical Islamic and anti-Semitic terrorism in recent decades. In 1980, a bomb detonated outside of a synagogue in Paris killing four people and injuring many others. Later that decade, a group of men charged into the packed Jo Goldenberg's restaurant in the Jewish quarter and detonated a grenade that killed six and wounded 22. (That attack was blamed on Fatah.) There were many other attacks in the 1980s and 1990s, including on the Parisian metro, but perhaps the most ambitious came in 1994, when four men from the Armed Islamic Group seized control of an Air France jet full of passengers on the tarmac in Algiers. They killed two passengers, placed dynamite inside the aircraft, and discussed how they might get the plane over the French capital so that they could blow it up and maximize the carnage. After executing a third passenger, and promising to kill another one every 30 minutes unless they were cleared to fly to France, they made it to the southern French city of Marseille for refueling. Once there, just 400 miles from Paris, they demanded an absurd amount of fuel (likely to make for a bigger explosion). But as the plane was being refueled, deft French commandos closed in and killed all four men.

All history aside, the March 2012 attacks come barely a month before the first round of France's presidential election. While the reasons behind the recent attacks remain obscure, they have already upended the presidential election.

President Sarkozy has, over the last 10 days or so, finally found some campaign footing, trimming Hollande's lead over him in a likely run-off from as much as 20 percent down to 8 percent (largely by luring some of the disgruntled Gaullist and hard-right members of his natural base back into the fold). If the recent attacks turn out to be the work of radical Islamists, it would have the potential to shake up the electoral battlefield in his favor. But if these attacks are the work of a Neo Nazi-inspired Timothy McVeigh-esque figure, Sarkozy's recent appeals to hard- and far-right voters on immigration, citizenship, and religious meets just don't set him up for a Bill Clinton-like renaissance driven by an Oklahoma City Moment. The consensual François Hollande, who has never been accused of scapegoating foreigners or their children for electoral gain, would be the natural beneficiary at the ballot.

But right now, as France seeks to process its shock at the unimaginable horror of a killer who chased children just to shoot them, the presidential campaign feels far less immediate than catching the crazed killer on the loose.
Israelis agree Iran hasn't decided to construct nuclear bomb

JERUSALEM – Despite saber-rattling from Jerusalem, Israeli officials now agree with the U.S. assessment that Tehran has not yet decided on the actual construction of a nuclear bomb, according to senior Israeli government and defense figures.

Even so, there is great concern in Israel about leaving Iran "on the cusp" of a bomb -- explaining why Israel continues to hint at a military attack on Iran's nuclear installations before it moves enough of them underground to protect them from Israel's bombs.

Israel's leaders have been charging in no uncertain terms for years that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. Though officials say they accept the more nuanced American view, they warn that it is just a matter of semantics, because an Iran on the verge of being able to build a bomb would still be a danger.

The United States is playing up its assessment that Iran has not made its final decision in a public campaign to persuade Israel to call off any attack plan and allow the increasingly harsh sanctions against Iran time to persuade Tehran to back down.

The concern -- which is widely shared in Israel as part of a complex calculation -- is of an Iranian retaliation that might spark regional conflict and send oil prices soaring, at a time when the world economy is already struggling and U.S. presidential elections loom.

Also in the equation are concerns about the ability of the Israeli home front to withstand a sustained barrage of Iranian missiles fired in retaliation. Iranian surrogates Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip could also bombard Israel with thousands of rockets, and U.S. troops in the Gulf region could also become targets.

Several senior Israeli officials who spoke in recent days to The Associated Press said Israel has come around to the U.S. view that no final decision to build a bomb has been made by Iran. The officials, who are privy to intelligence and to the discussion about the Iranian program, said this is the prevailing view in the intelligence community, but there are also questions about whether Tehran might be hiding specific bomb making operations.

The concern, they said, is about allowing the Iranian program to reach the point where there is enough enriched weapons grade material that a bomb could quickly be assembled, within a year.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, "Iran, whose leader foments terrorism and violence around the globe and calls for our destruction ... this regime must never be allowed to have nuclear weapons."

Israel officials have said that with Iran moving its installations underground, Israel's level of bunker-busting capability leaves it with a window of no more than several months to act effectively. The United States, with more powerful bombs, would have a much longer period -- but leaders here are loathe to be entirely dependent on U.S. determination on the issue.

The suspicion in Israel is that the Iranians have held off on a decision in order to deny Israel -- and other countries -- the pretext for an attack, officials said, noting that to a certain extent the matter is semantic and therefore secondary.

All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject is deemed too delicate to be discussed on the record, and the government has ordered silence.

Israel views Iran as a threat to its survival and, like the West, sees Tehran's ramped-up enrichment of uranium, a key element of bomb making, as undercutting its claims that its nuclear program is purely civilian. The U.N. nuclear agency cited its concerns about Iran's ultimate designs in reports, but notes its inspectors have found no direct evidence that Iran is moving toward an atomic weapon.

Netanyahu ratcheted up the tough talk this month, emphasizing during a White House visit and in a high-profile speech at home that Israel was prepared to act alone if necessary, even over U.S. objections.

In advance of Netanyahu's White House visit and during a speech to a powerful pro-Israel lobby, President Barack Obama took an increasingly assertive tone about U.S. refusal to tolerate a nuclear Iran and willingness to block that militarily.

Still, he tempered this tone by saying there was "too much loose talk of war" and emphasized his preference for diplomacy and sanctions. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated shortly before Netanyahu arrived in Washington the prevailing U.S. view that Tehran has not decided to produce weapons.

Iran reported in February that it possesses up to 100 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent, which would be enough for four bombs if further processed. Uranium must be enriched to 90 percent to be military grade.

Israeli intelligence officials, like other intelligence agencies worldwide, estimate that once a decision to build a bomb is reached, it would take months to upgrade the enrichment and months more to build a crude bomb -- in all, a year to 18 months.

Then, to fit a bomb to a Shahab-3 missile capable of striking Israel would take Iran two years, Israeli defense officials say.

Israeli officials who favor a strike do not want Iran even to reach the point where work on a bomb could begin.

Israeli leaders have invoked the Nazi Holocaust of World War II, when 6 million Jews were killed, in their warnings about Iran, citing its nuclear program, repeated references to Israel's destruction, support for anti-Israel militants on the southern and northern borders and development of missiles capable of being fitted with nuclear warheads.

There is also fear of an Iranian bomb sparking a nuclear arms race across an already volatile region with an active illicit, cross-border weapons trade.

Israel itself is widely believe to have an arsenal of nuclear weapons, though it has a policy of neither confirming nor denying that.

Israel has been warning of an Iranian nuclear threat since the 1990s and has been working on a possible military strike for years.

Leaders here have welcomed the increased sanctions on Iranian oil exports and banks, but they remain skeptical of an Iranian climbdown, especially because Russia and China refuse to join the effort.

Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/world/2012/03/19/israelis-agree-iran-hasnt-decided-to-construct-nuclear-bomb/#ixzz1pXl4HG5f