What will Lukashenko’s Pyrrhic victory bring to Belarus?

by Nikola Mikovic (Twitter), a Serbian freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst. He writes for several publications such as Geopolitical MonitorGlobal Security ReviewInternational Policy DigestGlobal Comment, and Weekly Blitz. Nikola covers mostly Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is expected to win the presidential election scheduled for August 9, however, the turmoil in the East European country could start the day after. The main opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya will most likely claim that the election was rigged and will call her supporters to come out and protest. Could that lead to clashes and riots similar to the events in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014 when the allegedly pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown?

Presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya leads her campaign rally in the town of Maladzechna, some 70 km northwest of Minsk, on July 31, 2020. (Photo: Sergei Gapon).
Presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya leads her campaign rally in the town of Maladzechna, some 70 km northwest of Minsk, on July 31, 2020. (Photo: Sergei Gapon).

So far, Belarusian security apparatus was loyal to Lukashenko. His son Viktor is a member of the Security Council of the Republic of Belarus, as well as an Assistant on National Security to his father. On the other hand, it is believed Russian operatives are, to a certain extent, infiltrated into Belarusian security services, and recent arrest of 33 members of the Russian Wagner private military company indicates that the Kremlin could try to destabilize its neighbor and ally. According to Press Secretary for the President of Russia Dmitry Peskov,[t]hey had plane tickets to Istanbul“. There are speculations that Lukashenko orchestrated the incident so that he could postpone the election as he apparently fears that he could lose. Such a scenario is not very likely, as the current incumbent firmly controls the election process and the mainstream media. In addition, he is still supported by the majority of rural population, as well as senior citizens, and also by a significant percent of the middle class. The opposition, led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a wife of a popular vlogger Sergey Tikhanovsky who was arrested in May on dubious charges, can certainly count on votes from the young people, as most of them are tired of Lukashenko’s 26 year rule and his neo-Soviet brand of stability. She is also supported by the nationalist and liberal West-backed opposition, although there are claims that her husband was linked with certain Russian structures. In any case, her chances against Lukashenko are very slim, in spite of mass rallies where thousands of people came out to support her. If history is any guide, Belarusian leader is expected to win the election in the first round, as over the past 26 years he never got less than 70 percent of the votes. 

His victory could, however, be a Pyrrhic one. Right after the election, he will have to find a way to deal with mass demonstrations, and possibly even labor strikes. If he responds brutally and crackdowns on protests, he can expect to get new packages of Western sanctions. In that case, he will have to turn to Russia which expects significant concessions, especially regarding the energy trade, as well as the future of the Russia – Belarus Union State. In the meantime, Lukashenko will have to decide if he will release the Wagner mercenaries, which is what the Kremlin requested, or if some of them will be extradited to Ukraine, which is what Kiev expects as some of the detained mercenaries reportedly fought against Ukrainian army in the Donbass. 

It is not improbable that Russia is sending a certain message to Lukashenko by indirectly supporting some opposition figures. For instance, Viktor Babariko, former banker who spent 20 years working for the local unit of Russia’s Gazprombank, was seen as the most serious threat for Alexander Lukashenko. He was arrested on June 18 after he was accused of siphoning $430 million out of Belarus in money-laundering schemes. Since he was likely perceived as someone who has close ties with Russian energy sector, and who would have very high chances against Lukashenko, Belarusian leader had no choice but to put him behind the bars. Also, Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the United States and founder of a successful hi-tech park, was denied a spot on the ballot and he moved to Russia with his two children after unnamed sources in the Belarus’s Interior Ministry and the State Security Committee (the KGB) apparently warned him about a looming arrest and plans to strip him of his parental rights and take his children away. Finally, after the arrest of Russian Wagner mercenaries, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) reportedly unilaterally increased checks and started manually recording personal details of every Belarusian citizen crossing the border between the two countries, which is another pressure on Lukashenko ahead of the election. In addition to that, Russian controversial politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is seen as the so-called system opposition, advised Lukashenko to withdraw his candidacy, which can be interpreted as another message the Kremlin is sending to Belarusian leader. 

In spite of tense relations with Russia, at this point, Belarusian radical U-turn and looking westward does not seem very likely, as the country is economically, and especially energetically, heavily dependent on Moscow. Since Russia does not seem to be willing to keep buying Lukashenko’s loyalty by providing cheap natural gas and oil to Belarus, relations between the two allied counties will likely have to be redefined. Lukashenko will undoubtedly try to keep balancing between Russia and the West, although such a policy may not be sustainable in the long term, as his position will be weakened and Belarusian economy will continue to sink. At the end, the future of the Eastern European country will depend on lucrative deals between the Kremlin and the West. 

More information

Lukashenka Accuses Opponents Of Attempting Return To ‘Chaos’“, RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, 4th August 2020.

Posted in Authors, Belarus, English, Nikola Mikovic, Politics in General, Security Policy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Carving of the Mediterranean

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

Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz is escorted by Turkish Navy frigate TCG Gemlik (F-492) in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off Cyprus, August 6, 2019. (Photo: Murad Sezer).
Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz is escorted by Turkish Navy frigate TCG Gemlik (F-492) in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off Cyprus, August 6, 2019. (Photo: Murad Sezer).

Notwithstanding the lingering disputes between Greece and Turkey over some Aegean islands, the Cyprus issue, and the occasional Spanish rumbling over Gibraltar, the Mediterranean has enjoyed relative tranquility in international affairs over the past few decades. That calm abruptly ended in November 2019 with the signing of a Maritime Boundary Treaty between Turkey and Libya. The agreement purports to establish a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) between the two countries, as well as 18.6 nautical miles of continental shelf, ignoring the presence of such Greek islands as Crete, Kasos, and Rhodes (see graphic below on the right side). Turkey, which has successfully supported Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in recent months against forces led by Khalifa Haftar, is already looking to capitalize on the agreement: Turkish Petroleum (TPAO) has announced plans for oil exploration off Libya’s coast by the end of the year.

Other coastal states have done more than issue condemnations of the Turkish-Libyan maritime deal, proceeding to carve up the Mediterranean Sea into their zones of influence. In June 2020, Greece and Italy signed a Maritime Boundary Treaty, establishing a joint EEZ in the Ionian Sea. Egyptian and Greek officials have also discussed the possible establishment of a joint EEZ in the near future, which would very likely overlap with the one outlined in the Turkish-Libyan deal. In March 2018, Algeria unilaterally expanded its EEZ, which Spain and Italy rejected the same year. Adding to tensions, Turkey has expressed opposition to the 1,900-kilometer-long EastMed pipeline project that would deliver Israeli natural gas to European markets via Cyprus and Greece.

These overlapping claims increase the potential for an armed confrontation between two or more Mediterranean states. For example, the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED) Operation IRINI (Greek for “peace”), launched at the end of March 2020 to enforce a United Nations arms embargo in Libya, has already had some tense encounters with Turkish forces. IRINI – which is led by the Italian Landing Platform Dock San Giorgia and has seen participation from two Greek frigates and one French frigate, as well as air assets from Germany, Luxembourg, and Poland – has been called “a joke” by Stephanie Williams, the deputy head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). However, the increasingly frequent standoffs between IRINI and the Turkish Naval Forces have been anything but amusing. On June 10, a Greek frigate attempted to check a Tanzanian-flagged cargo vessel suspected of carrying arms to Libya but was warned off by a Turkish frigate. One week later, on June 17, a French frigate attempting to intercept another suspected illegal arms shipment was harassed by multiple Turkish military vessels.

NATO has indicated that it will investigate the June 17 incident, and mediation by the Alliance could serve to ease tensions, at least as far as Operation IRINI is concerned. Evidently, a more concerted diplomatic effort is needed to restore the Mediterranean’s stability before it becomes fully entangled in conflicting sovereignty claims. NATO may seem the natural choice as a mediator, given that it could build on the momentum from disarming the Operation IRINI dispute and that many of the Mediterranean Sea states are members. However, not all of these states are members: NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue is comprised of Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia, while there is no formal cooperation between the Alliance and Libya. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) faces similar limitations: although Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain participate in the OSCE and the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation allow for some outreach to Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia, there is again no formal engagement with Libya. Perhaps the most appropriate forum would be the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), comprised of 42 member states (27 of whom are European Union members). However, Libya is only an observer, Syria suspended its membership on December 1, 2011, and the UfM was only founded in 2008, focusing much of its work on sustainable development projects in the southern and eastern Mediterranean states. Examples for such projects are the cleanup of Lake Bizerte in Tunisia and the construction of a desalination plant in Gaza. As such, the UfM may lack the credibility and resources to effectively broker the necessary compromises in the region.

The UfM activities address the three strategic objectives of the Mediterranean region: Human Development, Stability, and Integration.

There also seems to be no individual state willing to apply the diplomatic pressure that would bring most or all of the parties to the negotiating table. In June 2020, when the EU raised concerns about the Turkish-Libyan maritime deal, US policymakers responded that they have been “…considering the situation in the Mediterranean, but mainly in relation to the situation in Libya”. In short, the US is concerned that Turkish arms shipments and other support could fuel further conflict within Libya, but it has no desire to become involved in the emerging maritime disputes in the region. While China has a significant trade and investment footprint in the region, it has adopted a hedging strategy toward Libya and other conflicts, making Chinese policymakers averse to any embroilments in these maritime disputes or, for that matter, even the fight between the GNA and General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army. Russia has shown a willingness to mediate in the Mediterranean to some degree, but it favors Haftar, which will have certainly undermined any trust the GNA might have had in Russian overtures. A Russian-led effort to soothe tensions over the Turkish-Libyan maritime deal would undoubtedly be looked upon in Ankara as merely Russian envy at Turkey’s newfound access to Libyan offshore oil and gas reserves. 

The outlook for the Mediterranean, then, is rather bleak. Without an effective forum to address disputes and with no regional or global power willing to lead the search for a lasting solution, it is likely that those states with the force to back up their territorial claims, like Turkey, will persist while those who lack the necessary force, like Algeria, will be made to acquiesce. Barring a radical change in American foreign policy or an effort from within the region itself, it seems likely the waters of the Mediterranean will henceforth be governed by the ancient and ugly doctrine that might makes right.

Posted in English, International, International law, Paul Pryce, Sea Powers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Can Syria and Libya finally forge an effective alliance?

by Paul Iddon

On a tactical level, the Syrian civil war is increasingly being exported to Libya, where thousands of Syrian men have been recruited during the last year for Libya’s warring sides. Turkey sent former rebels who fought in Syria against the Assad regime to fight under the banner of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). They make up the majority of Syrian-descended fighters in Libya. According to USAFRICOM, Turkey deployed between 3,500 and 3,800 Syrian fighters to Libya during the first three months of 2020. On the other hand, Syrian soldiers recruited by Russia are fighting on the side of General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). According to relatives of these soldiers, many of them had served in the pro-Assad National Defense Forces and were told they were going to guard oil installations in Libya. However, this could also be an excuse, because mercenary service in Libya – no matter which side – is frowned upon in the Syrian public despite the lucrative financial opportunities. USAFRICOM even assumes that the 300-400 Syrian fighters on the LNA side are former Syrian opposition rebels who agreed to fight in Libya in exchange for $1,000 per month and clemency from the Assad regime. (Kareem Fahim and Zakaria Zakaria, “These Syrian Militiamen Were Foes in Their Civil War. Now They Are Battling Each Other in Libya“, Washington Post, June 25, 2020).

On the political level, relations between the Assad regime and the LNA are growing, given the increased convergence of interests both share in the region, particularly their mutual opposition to Turkey. In early March 2020, a delegation from the LNA visited Damascus to open an embassy and declared both powers’ joint interest to “confront Turkish interference and aggression against both countries”. (“Assad joins forces with Libya’s rogue general Haftar to combat ‘Turkish aggression’“, The New Arab, March 2, 2020). The visit came as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was fighting the Turkish military and its militia proxies in Syria’s northwest Idlib governorate in the most severe clashes between Syria and Turkey to date. In Libya, too, the fighting has intensified with Turkey backing the GNA’s “Operation Peace Storm” to help the group push the LNA away from Tripoli. (Paul Iddon, “Peace Storm: Turkey tries to turn the tables in Libya“, Ahval News, April 16, 2020). The UAE, another backer of the LNA, has also been working toward normalizing ties with the Assad regime and supports Turkey’s various opponents in the wider region. It is in this context that relations between Assad and Haftar are increasing. 

(Infographic by TheNewArab, added to this article by offiziere.ch)

Assad, who needs oil to bolster his bankrupt regime, most likely welcomes the LNA as an ally. While the extent of their cooperation against Ankara on both battlefields has yet to be seen, an Assad-Haftar alliance against Turkey might not prove all that extensive or significant if Syria and Libya’s past efforts to establish close ties and cooperate on a range of issues are anything to go by. In the mid-20th century, there were numerous efforts by the various Arab states of the Middle East and North Africa to unite into one powerful cultural-economic-military-political entity. This dream of pan-Arabism was never realized. The closest it came was the short-lived political union between Egypt and Syria, the United Arab Republic (UAR), which only lasted from 1958 until the latter’s secession in 1961. Despite that failure, several prominent Arab states held subsequent negotiations and summits aimed toward establishing a unitary Arab state or at least a federation of Arab states. 

The history of Syria and Libya’s attempts at forging an alliance and even a unitary state may shed some light on the possible fate of the partnership recently under discussion between Assad’s regime and Haftar’s LNA. In a project spearheaded by Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in the early 1970s, Libya, Egypt, and Syria briefly established the Federation of Arab Republics (FAR). However, FAR proved much more symbolic than the UAR since the three-member states’ economies and militaries were never unified. In October 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated surprise attack on Israel in an ultimately failed attempt at recapturing both the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights that Israel seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The aftermath of the 1973 war divided the Arab nations, which resulted in FAR’s complete disestablishment in late 1977. Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat pushed ahead with peace negotiations with Israel that ultimately led to the Camp David Accords and the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty

Syria’s Hafez al-Assad and Gaddafi opposed Egypt’s move. Tensions between Libya and Egypt sparked a four-day border war in 21-24 July 1977, which resulted in the far larger Egyptian forces pummelling the Libyans and briefly advancing a few miles into eastern Libya before a ceasefire brought an end to the hostilities. Opposition to the Camp David Accords led to Assad and Gaddafi’s most serious undertaking to unite their countries. In September 1980, Assad visited Tripoli, where a reported half-a-million Libyans gathered near the airport to greet him, chanting “One nation not two”. “Unity would be a health potion for us and the death knell for our enemies”, Assad told the enthusiastic crowd. (“Syria’s Assad, Libya’s Khadafy talk merger”, United Press International, September 9, 1980). Both leaders declared that they had agreed to unite their countries into a single “economic, political, military and cultural” entity. (“Syria-Libya Merger Hits Snags”, United Press International, December 19, 1980). According to a joint communique, the planned unitary state would have been the primary power in the “confrontation against the parties of Camp David, represented by American imperialism, the Zionist enemy and the agent regime of Sadat” (“Syria, Libya, 800 Miles Apart, Proclaim Merger, Vow Fight to Liberate Palestine”, The Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1980). 

Assad’s Syria certainly is in need of whatever friends it can get, especially rich ones like Libya. The government has been racked by internal dissent and its economy is in tatters.

— Loren Loren Jenkins, “Syria Agrees to a Merger With Libya“, Washington Post, September 3, 1980.

Creating a unitary state would have fused Syria’s superior manpower and military strength with oil-rich Libya, which made billions in oil revenues in those years. “Together, Libya and Syria would be able to muster armed forces of 300,000 with 4,600 tanks and 590 combat aircraft to confront Israel’s 170,000-member standing army backed by 3,050 U.S.-made tanks and 535 warplanes”, noted one report at the time. (“Syria Determined To Make Libya Merger Work”, Associated Press, November 27, 1980). Sadat made fun of the declarations and proclamations about Syrian-Libyan unity, sarcastically saying the planned merger was “very encouraging” before laughing. He also called it a “children’s game”. (“Syria, Libya Merge To Confront Israel In Arab Revolution”, Associated Press, September 11, 1980). Indeed, aside from the fanfare, little tangible headway was made toward merging Syria and Libya. The project, like those others before it, simply fell through. 

In many ways, that merger was doomed to fail for various reasons. For one, Syria and Libya are not geographically linked, rather they are separated by more than 1,000 kilometers either by land or sea. Also, neither dictator would have let the other directly rule over them or their country, which was one reason for the dissolution of the ill-fated UAR. Incidentally, the latter reason was the same reason a planned Iraq-Syria merger around the same time failed. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein feared to become relegated to a deputy leader to the much more experienced Hafez al-Assad in any Syria-Iraq unitary state. This was most likely the main reason why he alleged Assad’s Syrian Baath party was plotting a coup against Baghdad as a pretext to execute his public purge of the Iraqi parliament on July 22, 1979. (Paul Iddon, “A history of Iraq-Syria relations“, The New Arab, November 8, 2018).

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in 1977 (Photo: Museum of Syrian History).

Syria and Libya stood out in the 1980s because they were the only Arab countries that supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq War. In October 1980, Iraq simultaneously severed its relations with both countries along with North Korea. Throughout the decade, Libya and Syria supplied Tehran with antiaircraft missiles, Scud ballistic missiles, artillery shells and short-range Katyusha surface-to-surface rockets. (Elaine Sciolino, “Iran, in 6-Year Search for Arms, Finds World of Willing Suppliers“, The New York Times, November 25, 1986). Given that Iran is a non-Arab nation, this was unpopular in the Arab World. In a clear reference to Libya and Syria, King Hussein of Jordan declared in November 1980 that “Arab arms should not… be used against Arab people. This makes it plain that no Arab party should support any non-Arab party engaged in conflict with any Arab country”. (Mona A. Ziade, “Jordan’s Hussein hits Syria, Libya”, United Press International, November 28, 1980).

In 1984, both Syria and Libya directly threatened Jordan for renewing relations with Egypt. Syria called Amman’s decision “dangerous” and threatened to take “deterrent measures”. Meanwhile, Libya called on Arab states to boycott Jordan in response to what it called Amman’s “treacherous stab in the back of the Arab nation”. (“Syria, Libya Threaten Jordan For Renewing Ties With Egypt”, Associated Press, September 27, 1984). However, by the end of the decade, most other Arab countries patched up their relations with Egypt following their previous boycott of Cairo for making peace with Israel. The only exceptions were Libya, Syria, and Lebanon – the latter little more than a Syrian satrap at the time. 

Tripoli and Damascus even blocked a move in 1988 by the Persian Gulf states to readmit Egypt into the Arab League. (Mary Curtius, “For Mubarak, a pretty good year”, The Boston Globe, January 3, 1988). However, by 1987, Syria and Libya joined the rest of the Arab countries in calling for Iran “to respond to calls for peace and to accept a settlement of the conflict by peaceful means”. (Stephen Broening, “U.S. Watches Sign of Realignment in Mideast Diplomacy”, The Baltimore Sun, April 19, 1987). When Saddam Hussein later invaded and annexed Kuwait in August 1990, Syria and Libya reacted very differently. Syria joined the US-led coalition to force Iraq out of Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War while Libya voiced its support for Iraq. (John Kifner, “Arabs Vote To Send Troops To Help Saudis; Boycott Of Iraqi Oil Is Reported Near 100%“, The New York Times, August 11, 1990).

In the early 2000s, significant political changes occurred in both countries. Hafez al-Assad passed away in 2000, and his son Bashar became the president. Many initially hoped Bashar would reform the country and improve its relations with the West. Then, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Gaddafi agreed to surrender his weapons of mass destruction program to the United States. (Flynt Leverett, “Why Libya Gave Up on the Bomb“, The New York Times, January 23, 2004). Some hoped at the time that, given cordial relations between Gaddafi and Assad, Syria would follow suit. There were even other suggestions that Damascus and Tripoli might follow Amman and Cairo’s footsteps and make peace with Israel. (“Syria May Follow Kadafi’s Example”, The Los Angeles Times, December 21, 2003). It was not to be. Around the same time that Assad became persona non grata in the West following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, Gaddafi’s regime, on the other hand, was essentially normalized, given his cooperation with the West. 

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi alongside Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad during his 2008 visit to Damascus
(Photo: AFP/Getty Images).

Both regimes responded in similarly violent ways to the outbreak of the Arab Spring demonstrations in early 2011. Gaddafi promptly sent his air force to bomb an armed insurrection in Benghazi. At the same time, Assad violently cracked down on initially nonviolent political demonstrations against his dictatorial rule. The U.S., U.K., and France militarily intervened against Gaddafi’s forces with missiles and airstrikes, enabling the rebels to advance westward from Benghazi onto Tripoli. Damascus opposed foreign military intervention in the Libyan conflict and, in a somewhat ironic statement in light of its vicious crackdown, “called on the necessity to preserve the life of civilians” as well as for Tripoli to “resort to wisdom and dialogue to answer the desires of these people”. (“Syria says against foreign intervention in Libya“, Reuters, March 10, 2011). Along with Algeria, Syria was the only Arab League member that opposed a no-fly zone over the North African country early in the conflict. (Peter Cave, Tim Palmer and wires, “Arab states back Libya no-fly zone“, ABC News, March 12, 2011). The rebels found and murdered Gaddafi before the end of the year, and Libya descended into a state of violent instability that continues until this day. 

The Western powers did not intervene directly in the increasingly violent Syrian conflict. Assad resolved not to suffer the same fate as Gaddafi or relinquish his hold on power. Unlike Gaddafi, he also had the backing of Iran and a decisive Russian military intervention on his side. The two countries would endure very violent conflicts throughout the 2010s, Syria’s being much bloodier and destructive than Libya’s. The conflicts also produced distressing footage of desperate refugees fleeing their war-torn countries for sanctuary in Europe, many of them drowning in the Mediterranean. Turkey’s patronage of anti-Assad Syrian militiamen – which it has predominantly used to fight against Kurdish forces in Syria – and its backing of the UN-recognized GNA in Tripoli have now brought Assad and Haftar closer together. However, if history is any precedent, these new relations may not bring into being a serious alliance. 

Posted in English, History, Libya, Paul Iddon, Politics in General, Security Policy, Syria | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

F-35: Endlich Hightech-Kampfjet oder immer noch ein technisches Desaster?

von Roger Näbig (Twitter / LinkedIn). Er arbeitet als Rechtsanwalt und freier Journalist in Berlin mit dem Fokus auf globalen Konflikten, Verteidigung, Sicherheit, Militärpolitik, Rüstungstechnik & Kriegsvölkerrecht. Darüber hinaus hält er Vorträge zu verteidigungspolitischen Themen.

Spotter begrüssen das Kampfflugzeug Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II der US Air Force auf dem Militärflugplatz Payerne im Rahmen des Beschaffungsprogramms AIR2030 der Schweizer Luftwaffe in Payerne (Foto: Gunter Fischer).

Geht es gemäss den Verkaufserwartungen von Lockheed Martin sollte es sich bei der F-35 Lightning II in den nächsten Jahrzehnten um das wichtigste Kampfflugzeug der US-Luftwaffe (USAF), mehreren NATO-Staaten und deren verbündeten Staaten handeln. Bestellungen liegen derzeit aus einem Dutzend Ländern vor, darunter aus Australien, Belgien, Däne­mark, Grossbritannien, Israel, Italien, Japan, Kanada, den Niederlanden, Norwegen, Polen und Südkorea. Insgesamt könnten über 3’300 Stück produziert werden, was den Kampfjet hinsichtlich langfristiger Weiterentwicklung und auch preislich attraktiv werden lassen könnte. Nur schon preislich hat sich die F-35 nach dem Ausscheiden der Saab Gripen E im Juni 2019 zu einem realistischen Kandidaten bei der schweizerischen Kampfjetevaluation gemausert. Ausserdem könnte die F-35 der Schweiz technologisch den Zugang zu einer anderen Liga eröffnen. Damit verbunden sind auch Risiken, denn die technologischen Herausforderungen sind bedeutend höher als dies bei den restlichen durch die Schweiz evaluierten Kampfflugzeugen der 4. Generation der Fall ist. Lohnt es sich diese Risiken einzugehen oder ist die F-35 für die Schweiz eine Nummer zu gross?

Die F-35 stand auch in Deutschland im Zuge der Nachfolgeentscheidung über den Tornado-Kampfbomber in der Diskussion. Sowohl von politischer Seite aber auch von der renommierten deutschen Denkfabrik DGAP kam die Forderung auf, für die nukleare Teilhabe (NT) anstatt der betagten F/A-18 E/F (ebenfalls Teil der schweizerischen Kampfflugzeugevaluation) besser die moderne F-35A anzuschaffen. Ein Tornado-Nachfolger müsse problemlos und effizient mit den Kampflugzeugen der Verbündeten zusammenarbeiten können. Deutschland solle seinen Piloten das am besten geeignete Flugzeug zur Verfügung stellen. Hohe Erfolgswahrscheinlichkeit eines Einsatzes und permanente Verfügbarkeit der Flugzeuge seien für eine glaubwürdige Abschreckung, auch mit Hilfe der für Deutschland sicherheitspolitisch wichtigen Nuklearen Teilhabe, entscheidend. Aber sind die von der DGAP genannten Attribute für die F-35 wirklich zutreffend?

In meinem ersten Beitrag vor rund 2 Jahren hatte ich mich bereits intensiv mit der F-35 beschäftigt. Im Lichte der aktuellen Diskussion in der Schweiz und in Deutschland über die Anschaffung der F-35 ist es an der Zeit, den derzeitigen Stand des Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Programmes in einem zweiten, aktualisierten Teil näher zu beleuchten und eingehend zu prüfen, ob nun die bisher aufgetretenen Mängel beseitigt werden konnten oder vielleicht sogar neue hinzu gekommen sind. Dem interessierten Leser empfehle ich daher, zunächst den vorherigen Artikel “F-35: Hightech Kampfjet oder 1,5 Billionen US$ Desaster?” zu lesen, weil dort bereits grundlegende technische Informationen zur F-35 behandelt wurden und so Wiederholungen in diesem Beitrag vermieden werden können.

Landung der F-35A von Lockheed Martin (geflogen von der US Air Force); gestartet von der Hill Air Force Base in Utah (USA) und gelandet auf dem Militärflugplatz Payerne (Schweiz) am 31. Mai 2019. © VBS/DDPS

500 Flugzeuge der Varianten A, B und C wurden bereits in Vorserie gebaut
Die F-35 verweilt mit insgesamt 500 gebauten Maschinen bis einschließlich Februar 2020, davon 353 für die US-Streitkräfte, immer noch in der Vorserienproduktion. Vier bis fünf Kampfflugzeuge werden jeden Monat von den Endmontagelinien in Fort Worth (USA), Camera (Italien) und Nagoya (Japan) ausgeliefert. Allein 2019 wurden so viele F-35 gebaut wie die deutsche Luftwaffe Eurofighter hat. Laut der bisherigen Programmplanung ist der Bau von über 3’300 Flugzeugen vorgesehen. Stornierungen sind dabei natürlich nicht ausgeschlossen, diese dürften allerdings durch weitere Exporte ausgeglichen werden. So  beteiligt sich Lockheed Martin an den laufenden Auswahlverfahren in der Schweiz, Finnland und in Kanada. Die technische Entwicklungsphase (System Design & Development; SDD) mit intensiven Tests gebauter Jets und deren Software lief knapp 17 Jahre bis zum 11.4.2018 und ging im Dezember desselben Jahres in die sogenannte Truppenerprobungsphase bzw. Initial Operational Test & Evaluation (IOT&E) über, die wahrscheinlich erst 2021 mit der Entscheidung über die endgültige Aufnahme der vollen Serienproduktion enden wird (sog. Milestone C).

Bei den internationalen Partnern des Programmes, die aktuell bis zu 809 F-35 bestellt haben, gab es Ende 2019 eine bemerkenswerte Entwicklung: Die Türkei als einer der größeren Besteller mit 100 Maschinen wurde wegen ihrer umstrittenen Beschaffung des russischen S-400 Flugabwehrsystems vom JSF-Programm ausgeschlossen. Problematisch ist dies vor allem deswegen, weil die Türkei rund 1’000 Bauteile für die F-35 liefern sollte, für die nun schnellstens Ersatzhersteller gesucht und gefunden werden müssen, ohne dass die Produktion unter den Ausfällen der “türkischen” Teile leidet.

F-35A-Verhandlungspreis (“Fly-away”) pro Flugzeug (Quelle: United States Government Accountability Office, “Actions Needed to Address Manufacturing and Modernization Risks“, 12.05.2020).

Die USA fanden zuletzt mit Belgien (34 Stück), Polen (32 Stück) und Singapur (12 Stück zzgl. 8 Kaufoptionen) neue Käufer für die F-35. Mit den über die Jahre gesteigerten Produktionszahlen sanken auch die Stückkosten für die Vorserienlose 12, 13 und 14 auf mittlerweile rund $78 Millionen für die F-35A CTOL, $101 Millionen für die F-35B STVOL und $94,5 Millionen für die F-35C CV (alles “Fly-away-Preise“; Valerie Insinna, “In Newly Inked Deal, F-35 Price Falls to $78 Million a Copy“, Defense News, 29.10.2019). In den USA wird das United States Marine Corps (USMC) wohl 54 Maschinen weniger bestellen als bislang geplant, weil aufgrund interner Planungen die Größe der USMC-Geschwader zukünftig von 16 auf 10 Flugzeuge reduziert werden sollen. Die USAF beabsichtigte bislang, in Zukunft eine Flotte nur aus F-35A Kampfjets zu betreiben. Aufgrund der überlangen Entwicklungsdauer und der hohen Betriebskosten plant die USAF nunmehr, die F-15EX neben der F-35 zusätzlich als Ersatz für ältere F-15 Modelle anzuschaffen und dafür die Zahl der F-35 um 590 zu reduzieren. Bei der F-15EX handelt es sich um eine erheblich modernisierte Version auf Basis der für Saudi-Arabien (F-15SA) und Katar (F-15QA) gelieferten “Eagle”-Modelle, die dann als eine Art “Waffenträger-Packesel” der F-35 an die Seite gestellt werden soll. (Jeremiah Gertler, “F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program“, Congressional Research Service, 27.05.2020)

Block 4 bringt der F-35 endlich die volle Kampffähigkeit
Gegenwärtig ist bis zur Aufnahme der vollen Serienproduktion und darüber hinaus bis voraussichtlich 2024 als aktuell geplante Hard- und Software-Version Block 4 vorgesehen, die als erste nach 2B, 3I und 3F die volle Kampffähigkeit und endlich eine umfassende Bandbreite konventioneller Lenkwaffen und Raketen sowie nukleare Fähigkeiten enthalten wird. Das äußere Erscheinungsbild des Flugzeugs bzw. seine wesentliche Formgebung verändert sich dabei nicht. Block 4 besteht zu 80% aus neuer Software und nur zu 20% aus aktualisierter Hardware. Insgesamt 53 neue Funktionen werden dazu in die F-35 integriert, darunter Waffensysteme wie z.B. die Stormbreaker Gleitbombe, die B61-12 Atombombe, die britischen ASRAAM– und Meteor-Raketen sowie die Joint Strike Missile von Kongsberg/Raytheon. Hinzu kommen 11 Radar- sowie elektrooptische Nachrüstungen und 13 Aktualisierungen zur elektronischen Kampfführung. Ein System zur Vermeidung von Kollisionen am Boden (AGCAS), Außentanks für rund 2’200l zusätzlichen Treibstoff, eine neue, offene Gerätearchitektur für zukünftig schnellere Modernisierungen und die Fähigkeit, eine oder mehrere Drohnen als “loyale Flügelmänner” über die F-35 zu steuern, gehören ebenfalls zu den avisierten Erweiterungen. (John A. Tirpak, “Keeping the F-35 Ahead of the Bad Guys“, Air Force Magazine, 25.02.2019).

Block 4 wird jedoch nicht für alle bereits gebauten F-35 zur Verfügung stehen, weil hierfür nur Flugzeuge in Frage kommen, die zuvor mit dem Technical Refresh-3 (TR-3) nachgerüstet wurden. TR-3 umfasst u.a. modernere Panorama-Cockpitanzeigen, eine erweiterte Kapazität der Speichersysteme und eine aktualisierte Kernprozessor- und Computerleistung. Es wird erwartet, dass neue F-35 ab Produktionslos 15 bereits mit TR-3 “serienmäßig” ausgestattet sein werden, was für das Kalenderjahr 2023 vorgesehen ist. Ob alle F-35 Vorserienflugzeuge die TR-3 Nachrüstung erhalten, ist bislang unklar und hängt wohl auch von der zukünftigen Finanzierung ab.

Das Joint Program Office (JPO) und die Herstellerfirma Lockheed Martin begannen bereits 2018 damit, die längerfristige Entwicklung von Block 3F-Fähigkeiten im Rahmen von SDD mittels einer kontinuierlichen Entwicklung und Bereitstellung von Fähigkeiten (C2D2) auf einen schnelleren, sechsmonatigen Entwicklungs-, Test- sowie Einsatzzyklus für zusätzliche Fähigkeiten in Block 4 umzustellen, bei dem gleichzeitig die aus dem SDD übernommenen Mängel behoben werden sollten. Diese ambitionierte bzw. aggressive Vorgehensweise war nach Auffassung des Director Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E – interne Revisionsbehörde) in seinem Prüfbericht Anfang 2020 bislang nicht vom Erfolg gekrönt.

The current Continuous Capability Development and Delivery (C2D2) process has not been able to keep pace with adding new increments of capability as planned. Software changes, intended to introduce new capabilities or fix deficiencies, often introduced stability problems and adversely affected other functionality. Due to these inefficiencies, along with a large amount of planned new capabilities, DOT&E considers the program’s current Revision 13 master schedule to be high risk. — F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)“, FY 2019, Annual Report, The Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, 30 January 2020

Die F-35 besitzt laut aktuellem DOT&E-Prüfbericht “nur noch” 873 Mängel
Laut Revisionsbehörde weise die F-35 derzeit 873 ungelöste Mängel auf, von denen bereits 576 vor dem Abschluss der SDD- und dem Beginn der IOT&E-Phase festgestellt wurden. Davon gehören 13 in die Kategorie 1 der schwerwiegenden Fehler, also solche, die das Leben des Piloten, das Flugzeug selbst oder die Erfüllung der Mission gefährden bzw. unmöglich machen. Obwohl das JSF-Programm daran arbeite, diese Mängel zu beheben, würde man immer noch neue Fehler finden, so dass sich deren Gesamtzahl nur geringfügig verringert habe. Es gäbe zudem eine Vielzahl erheblicher Mängel, die behoben werden sollten, um sicherzustellen, dass die SDD-Basiskonfiguration (Block 3F) überhaupt erst einmal stabil im Betrieb laufe, bevor die große Zahl der in Block 4 geplanten neuen Fähigkeiten eingeführt werden. Was der DOT&E damit im Ingenieurjargon sagen will, ist, dass die schier endlos gepatchte Software, die alle Bauteile und Missionssysteme der F-35 steuert, instabil ist. Der “Computer, der zufällig fliegt” ist ein dichtes, integriertes Netzwerk aus Hardware, Software, Waffen und Missionsdaten. Eine Software-Änderung an einer beliebigen Komponente kann unbeabsichtigte negative Auswirkungen auf eine andere, eigentlich gar nicht verwandte Komponente haben und tut dies oft auch. 

Die Bedeutung der hohen Zahl an festgestellten Mängeln lässt sich auch aus dem “Deficiency Report Metrics”-Dokument des JSF-Programmbüro vom 28.2.2020 herauslesen. Danach wies das JSF-Programm zu diesem Zeitpunkt sogar 883 ungelöste Konstruktionsfehler auf und für 162 davon gebe es keinen Plan zur Korrektur (im Dokument als “open, no planned correction” – ONPC – ausgewiesen). Mehr als die Hälfte, nämlich 448 Mängel, blieben demnach “offen, strittig” (“open, in dispute” – OUIN), was bedeutet, dass Piloten oder Ingenieure glauben, ein Problem bei der F-35 gefunden zu haben, aber die für die Behebung verantwortliche Herstellerfirma Lockheed Martin behauptet, es gebe gar kein Problem. Die Standardantwort für solche festgestellten Mängel laute dann lapidar, dass der aktuelle F-35 Entwurf den Vertragsspezifikationen entspreche und dass weitere Änderungen nur mit einer kostenauslösenden Vertragsänderung bzw. -ergänzung vorgenommen werden könnten. Aus dem Dokument geht aber auch hervor, dass die Ingenieure Lösungen für 273 Mängel gefunden haben, die jedoch offen bleiben, weil entweder mehr Geldmittel zu deren Behebung benötigt werden oder mehr Tests erforderlich sind, um sicherzustellen, dass die Korrekturen auch funktionieren. (Dan Grazier, “F-35 Design Flaws Mounting, New Document Shows“, Project On Government Oversight, 11.03.2020).

“Alte Bekannte” bereiten weiterhin Probleme…
Liest man sich den 2019er Bericht des DOT&E zur F-35 weiter durch, erlebt man teilweise ein Déjà-Vu, denn viele der bereits 2018 beschriebenen Probleme tauchen auch jetzt wieder auf. Der DOT&E Prüfbericht liefert aber auch indirekt eine Begründung für die vielfältigen Schwierigkeiten bei der F-35: Die Aufrechterhaltung mehrerer Hardware-Konfigurationen der bereits im Einsatz befindlichen Flugzeuge (u.a. Block 2B, Block 3F, das mit Los 11 beginnende neue elektronische Kampfführungssystem und schließlich die ab Los 15 ab Werk mit TR-3 ausgestatteten sowie die älteren, nachgerüsteten Flugzeuge), stellen für die Programmierer und Ingenieure eine offensichtlich nicht zu meisternde Herausforderung dar. Nebenher muss das JSF-Programm auch noch die vorhandene Entwicklungs- und Betriebstestflotte zur Unterstützung der laufenden Produktion fortwährend pflegen sowie sechs verschiedene Softwareversionen zur Unterstützung bereitstellen und neu auftretende Programmierfehler zeitnah ausmerzen. Zusätzliche Versionen werden in Zukunft dann benötigt, wenn im Rahmen von Los 14/15 weitere Hardware-Änderungen hinzufügt werden. Zu diesem Zeitpunkt sollen dann ungefähr 1’000 Flugzeuge gebaut worden sein. Von daher verwundert es nicht, dass ein Großteil der aktuellen Fehler vor allem in der Flugzeug-Software zu finden sind.

We reported that one Air Force unit estimated that it spent the equivalent of more than 45,000 hours per year performing additional tasks and manual workarounds because ALIS was not functioning as needed. — United States Government Accountability Office, “DOD Faces Challenges in Sustaining a Growing Fleet“, 13.11.2019, Seite 8).

Da wäre als Erstes das Autonome Logitisk-Informations System (ALIS) zu nennen, das nach wie vor als ineffizient und schwerfällig in der Anwendung beschrieben wird. Insgesamt wurden bei ALIS 4’700 Mängel entdeckt, von denen über ein Drittel bereits seit über drei Jahren oder länger offen sind, und von denen 22% zu den schweren und mittleren Fehlern der Kategorien 1 und 2 gehören (United States Government Accountability Office, “DOD Needs a Strategy for Re-Designing the F-35’s Central Logistics System“, 16.03.2020, Seite 28). ALIS erfordere den Einsatz zahlreicher Umgehungslösungen, weise Probleme mit der Datengenauigkeit und -integrität auf und benötige einen übermäßigen Zeitaufwand. Laut eines Berichts des US-Rechnungshofes GAO soll das Wartungspersonal einer USAF Einheit jährlich ca. 45’000 zusätzliche Stunden für Arbeiten und manuelle Umgehungen aufgewandt haben, nur weil ALIS nicht wie vorgesehen funktioniere. Infolgedessen ermögliche ALIS keine effiziente Einsatzplanung und Einsatzbereitschaft der Kampfflugzeuge wie ursprünglich beabsichtigt. Dem Wartungspersonal fehle weiterhin das Vertrauen in die Funktionalität und Stabilität von ALIS. Die nun getroffene Entscheidung, ALIS 3.6 und 3.7 erst gar nicht zu veröffentlichen, obwohl die in diesen Versionen enthaltenen Fähigkeiten und Korrekturen dringend benötigt werden, erhöhe die Unsicherheit und das Planungsrisiko für die Beseitigung bestehender Mängel, insbesondere im Zusammenhang mit der Cybersicherheit und dem Einsatz von Windows 10.  Da das JSF-Programm nach vielen mühsamen Jahren und unzähligen Patches offensichtlich erkannt hat, dass ALIS langfristig keine stabile Grundlage mehr für den Betrieb der F-35 bietet, hat man sich Anfang 2020 dazu entschlossen, ein völlig neues, cloudbasiertes Programm namens “Operational Data Integrated Network” (ODIN) bis Dezember 2022 zu entwickeln. ODIN wird nach Fertigstellung übrigens im Eigentum der US-Regierung stehen, ganz im Gegensatz zu ALIS, das seit Anbeginn geistiges Eigentum von Lockheed Martin war. Es bleibt abzuwarten, ob der ambitionierte Zeitrahmen für die Programmierung von ODIN eingehalten werden kann und ob dann tatsächlich eine für den störungsfreien Betrieb der F-35 wirklich stabile, nutzerfreundliche, auch gegen Cyberangriffe geschützte Software vorliegen wird.

Technische und programmatische Unsicherheiten über die Zukunft des Autonomen Logistik-Informationssystems (ALIS; Quelle: United States Government Accountability Office, “DOD Needs a Strategy for Re-Designing the F-35’s Central Logistics System“, 16.03.2020, Seite 31)

Auch die in der Vergangenheit vom DOT&E immer wieder gerügte Cybersicherheit der F-35 und seiner Hilfs- und Wartungskomponenten scheint sich nicht wesentlich verbessert zu haben. Die bisherigen Sicherheitstests hätten laut DOT&E-Bericht gezeigt, dass die in den früheren Jahren festgestellten Schwachstellen immer noch nicht behoben seien. Es wurden wieder Angriffspunkte festgestellt, die beseitigt werden müssen, um zukünftig einen sicheren Betrieb u.a. von ALIS, des Schulungssystems, des US Reprogramming Laboratory (USRL) und der Kampfjets selbst gewährleisten zu können. Angesichts der aktuellen Cyber-Angriffe sowie der Bedrohungen für Stützpunkte und Kommunikation durch (fast) gleichwertige Gegner wie China oder Russland sollten die Datendienste für Flugzeugoperationen ohne ALIS-Verbindung über einen Zeitraum von 30 Betriebstagen weiterhin intensiv getestet werden. Die gleiche Empfehlung hatte der DOT&E auch schon 2018 gegeben, obwohl ein Betrieb der F-35 ohne ALIS eigentlich nur eingeschränkt möglich ist.

Abschließend bereitet auch das USRL, verantwortlich für die Programmierung und fortlaufende Pflege der Missionsdateien (Mission Data Loads – MDL), den Prüfern wenig Freude. Der Prozess zur Erstellung der für den Betrieb der F-35 unerlässlichen MDL sei, wie in den Jahren zuvor, zu langsam. Dem USRL fehle zudem immer noch eine angemessene Ausrüstung, um die Missionsdateien unter Bedingungen zu testen und zu optimieren, die umfassend genug seien, um eine angemessene Leistung der F-35 gegen aktuelle und zukünftige Bedrohungen im Kampfeinsatz zu gewährleisten. Das USRL verfüge z.B. noch immer nicht über genügend Signalgeneratoren, um eine realistische, hochkomplexe Bedrohungssituation eines feindlichen, integrierten Luftverteidigungssystems mit mehreren modernen Boden-Luft-Raketensystemen und den sie unterstützenden Radargeräten zu simulieren. Es mangele zudem an einer ausreichenden Anzahl von Hochfrequenz-Signalgeneratorkanälen, um das Elektronische Kampfführungssystem und die entsprechenden Radarfunktionen der F-35 mit simulierten Bedrohungsradarsignalen angemessen zu stimulieren. Die vom USRL bislang verwendeten Werkzeuge zur Neuprogrammierung der Missionsdateien sowie der Hard- und Software seien zu umständlich und erforderten mehrere Monate, um für die jeweiligen Einsatzgebiete eine neue MDL zu erstellen, zu testen, zu optimieren und zu verifizieren. Das USRL besitze im Konfliktfall somit nicht die erforderliche Fähigkeit zur schnellen Neu- bzw. Umprogrammierung von Missionsdateien. (“F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)“, FY 2019, Annual Report, The Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, 30 January 2020).

…und es kommen ständig neue Fehler hinzu
Es würde den Rahmen dieses Beitrages sprengen, neben den unzähligen Software-Problemen hier auch noch alle aktuell vorhandenen konstruktiven Fehler der F-35 darzustellen. Von daher beschränken sich die Ausführungen auf besonders eklatante technische Mängel, die man sich jedoch aus anderen Quellen heraussuchen muss. Insoweit ist es beim aktuellen DOT&E-Bericht auffällig, dass dieser deutlich weniger transparent ist, als die Berichte bis 2018. Er enthält keine Aktualisierungen zu den in den vergangenen Jahren gefundenen Mängeln, berichtet über weit weniger programmkritische Erkenntnisse als frühere Berichte und enthält fast keine quantitativen Ergebnisse zu den dringendsten Problemen der F-35. Der in 2018 veröffentliche Bericht enthielt z.B. eine Tabelle, in der die Ergebnisse der Genauigkeitstests für Waffeneinsätze im Allgemeinen sowie der Erfolgs- bzw. Misserfolgsstatus von Luft-Luft- und Luft-Boden-Lenkwaffenversuchen aufgeführt waren. Diese Tabelle oder zu mindestens entsprechende Hinweise sucht man im aktuellen Bericht vergebens. Über die Gründe hierfür kann man nur mutmaßen.

Bei der Behebung der schon seit Jahren bekannten Probleme mit der internen Bordkanone der F-35A wurden bislang jedenfalls keine Fortschritte erzielt. Es sei den Piloten weiterhin nicht möglich, Ziele zuverlässig zu treffen, weil die Bordkanone immer noch zu lang und zu weit nach rechts feuere. Der DOT&E Bericht bewertet diesen Umstand zum wiederholten Mal als schlicht “inakzeptabel”. Untersuchungen ergaben u.a. fehlerhafte Geschützhalterungen, die wiederum zu einer falschen Ausrichtung der Mündung führen. Infolgedessen sei die tatsächliche Ausrichtung jeder F-35A-Bordkanone unbekannt, so dass nun Optionen zur Neuausrichtung und Korrektur in Betracht gezogen werden. Weitere Tests in 2019 ergaben darüber hinaus strukturelle Schäden an einem Längsgurt und der Außenhülle der F-35, die durch das Abfeuern selbst entstehen. Nun ist es den Piloten nur noch erlaubt, die Bordkanone ausnahmsweise im Kampfeinsatz zu verwenden aber nicht zu Übungszwecken, auch wenn sie weiterhin ungenau feuert. (Dan Grazier, “Uncorrected Design Flaws, Cyber-Vulnerabilities, and Unreliability Plague the F-35 Program“, Project on Government Oversight, 24.03.2020).

Seit Juni 2019 ist bekannt, dass überhöhte Kabinendruckwerte in manchen Fällen bei Piloten extreme Ohren- und Nasennebenhöhlenschmerzen verursachen, was zum Verlust des Situationsbewusstseins während des Fluges führen kann. Dieses Barotrauma entsteht, “wenn Sensoren an der äußeren Formlinie des Flugzeugs sich schnell ändernde statische Drücke erfassen, die wiederum sehr schnelle Änderungen des Druckregelventils im Cockpit bewirken”. Eine Lösung hierfür scheint aber gefunden zu sein, nur haben die Flugtests mit einem neuen Cockpit-Druckregelungssystem bislang nicht stattgefunden. Diese sind, aus welchen Gründen auch immer, erst für Mitte 2020 vorgesehen. Bis 2021, also zwei Jahre nach dessen Auftreten, könnte dann dieser Fehler vielleicht vollständig behoben sein. (Georg Mader, “Weiterhin viele Probleme beim F-35“,Militär Aktuell, 27.04.2020)

F-35Bs an Bord der HMS Queen Elizabeth

Ein weiterer technischer Mangel der Kategorie 1 rief sogar den Militärischen Nachrichtendienst der Schweiz (MND) auf den Plan. Durch die Hitze der Nachbrennerabgase kommt es bei den F-35B/C-Kampfjets im Heckbereich zu Blasenbildungen an der radarabsorbierenden Außenhaut sowie den horizontalen Leitwerken und des Auslegers. Empfindliche Sensoren, die in der Außenhülle der hinteren Heckflächen eingebettet sind, können ebenfalls Beschädigungen davontragen. Berichten zufolge entstanden diese Hitzeprobleme, wenn die F-35B/C nahe ihrer maximalen Dienstgipfelhöhe von 15’000 m flogen und dabei ihre Nachbrenner einsetzten, um Geschwindigkeiten von Mach 1,3 bzw. 1,4 zu erreichen. Nach dem Vorfall im Jahre 2011 führte das USMC eine Richtlinie ein, nach der die B-Version bei Mach 1,3 kumulativ nicht länger als 80 Sekunden und bei Mach 1,4 nicht länger als 40 Sekunden den Nachbrenner einsetzen durfte. US-Navy Piloten mit der C-Version konnten fortan bei Mach 1,3 nur 50 Sekunden den Nachbrenner benutzten. Ein drei Minuten langer Flug ohne Nachbrenner zur Abkühlung wurde später ergänzend eingeführt, um das Heck dann wärmetechnisch “zurückzusetzen”. Dieser Kategorie-1-Fehler blieb schließlich bis 2019 ungelöst, bis man ihn im Dezember ohne Korrekturvorschlag einfach geschlossen hat, weil angeblich der Kosten-Nutzen-Effekt einer Beseitigung unverhältnismäßig sei. Der MND befürchtete nun, dass dieses Problem auch bei der F-35A vorhanden sein könnte. Auf eine offizielle Nachfrage der Schweiz hin erklärte die Herstellerfirma Lockheed Martin hierzu: “Die vom Nachbrenner abgegebene Wärme stellt kein Problem für die F-35A dar, deren Nachbrenner nicht die gleichen Eigenschaften wie die der Modelle B und C hat. Die Fähigkeit der F-35A zum Nachbrenner- oder Überschallflug ist daher nicht in Frage gestellt”. Die Piloten der B- und C-Versionen werden diese Aussage wohl kaum trösten.

Nicht einmal jede dritte F-35 erreicht die volle Einsatzbereitschaft
Ganz gleich, welche Fähigkeiten die F-35 theoretisch für einen Kampfeinsatz mitbringt, können diese nur dann eingesetzt werden, wenn das Flugzeug auch tatsächlich einsatzbereit ist. Einen vollständigen Überblick über die technische Zuverlässigkeit der F-35-Flotte zu erhalten, ist aufgrund der verschiedenen Statistiken, die zur Messung des Zustands der Flotte verwendet werden, ein eher schwieriges Unterfangen. Ein hierfür gerne genutzter Parameter ist die sogenannte Einsatzfähigkeitsrate (Mission Capability Rate – MC). Sie wird pro Einheit berechnet und stellt den Prozentsatz der Flugzeuge dar, die in der Lage sind, mindestens einen der ihnen zugewiesenen Aufträge auszuführen. Eine F-35, die z.B. einfach nur abheben aber ansonsten keine einzige Mission erfüllen kann, wird schon als einsatzfähig aufgeführt. Das JSF-Programm zieht diesen Wert natürlich der strengeren, sogenannten vollen Einsatzfähigkeitsrate (Full Mission Capability Rate – FMC) vor, die den Prozentsatz der Flugzeuge angibt, die in der Lage sind, alle ihr zugewiesenen Einsätze auszuführen. Für ein Mehrzweckflugzeug wie die F-35 ist der Prozentsatz der voll einsatzfähigen Flugzeuge natürlich die viel aussagekräftigere Zahl, vor allem wenn sie in Zukunft gegen (fast) gleichwertige Gegner antreten soll. Laut dem aktuellen DOT&E Bericht war kein Teil der F-35-Flotte, einschließlich der für Kampfeinsätze vorgesehene, in der Lage, das vom ehemaligen US-Verteidigungsminister James Mattis gesetzte Ziel einer 80%igen Einsatzfähigkeit (MC) zu erreichen und aufrechtzuerhalten. Dies gelang nur in Einzelfällen für einen kurzen Zeitraum. Grundsätzlich blieben die FMC-Raten deutlich hinter denen der MC zurück. Alle drei Varianten erreichten ungefähr ähnliche MC-Raten, aber deutlich unterschiedliche FMC-Raten. Die F-35A zeigte hierbei die beste FMC-Leistung, während die F-35C unter einer besonders schlechten FMC-Rate litt. Die F-35B lag mit ihrer FMC-Rate etwa in der Mitte zwischen den beiden anderen Varianten. Was der Bericht hier nur in etwas schwammige Worte fasst, lässt sich aus einer Grafik des US-Rechnungshofes vom April 2019 sehr viel besser herauslesen:

Leistung der F-35-Flugzeugflotte nach Variante, Mai-November 2018 (Quelle: United States Government Accountability Office, “DOD Needs to Address Substantial Supply Chain Challenges“, 25.04.2019, Seite 12).

Die statistischen Angaben aus dem Zeitraum Mai bis November 2018 sollen sich bis heute nicht wesentlich verändert bzw. verbessert haben. Ganz gleich, welche Zahlen man sich in den oberen Balkendiagrammen ansieht, bleibt die Einsatzfähigkeit der F-35-Flotte insgesamt weiterhin unterdurchschnittlich. Vom Ziel der oben erwähnten 80%igen MC-Rate sind alle drei Modelle mit rund 50% weit entfernt. Bei der FMC-Rate sind die Zahlen noch schlechter: Während bei der F-35A noch 34% aller Flugzeuge voll einsatzfähig sind, liegt der Anteil bei der B-Version nur noch bei 16%, um dann bei der trägergestützten C-Version auf 2% regelrecht abzustürzen. Insgesamt liegt die FMC-Rate über die gesamte F-35 Flotte hinweg bei durchschnittlich nur 26,8%. Ein Grund hierfür ist einerseits, dass Ersatzteile für die F-35 in einem gemeinsamen Pool der US-Teilstreitkräfte sowie der JSF-Partnerländer vorgehalten werden, der aber nicht in der Lage ist, genügend Ersatzteile zum erforderlichen Zeitpunkt zur Verfügung zu stellen und andererseits, dass Bauteile der F-35 auch viel öfter defekt sind, als erwartet und für die Vielzahl der unerwarteten Reparaturen die entsprechenden personellen wie logistischen Kapazitäten fehlen.

Ausgewählte Herausforderungen der F-35-Lieferkette (Quelle: United States Government Accountability Office, “DOD Faces Challenges in Sustaining a Growing Fleet“, 13.11.2019.

Ist die F-35 zu kompliziert, zu sehr auf Stealth fixiert und zu teuer?
Die F-35 ist nicht nur, wie eingangs beschrieben, in Deutschland, sondern natürlich auch in Russland ein großes Thema. Der Chef-Redakteur des Internet Portals der russischen Militärzeitschrift “Arsenal des Vaterlandes” (“Арсенал Отечества“) Dmitry Drozdenko äußerte sich zum US-Kampfjet auf Sputnik wie folgt: “Die F-35 ist ein sehr komplexes System und als solches hat sie viele Lücken, Fehler und andere Dinge, und es ist sehr schwierig, sie zu debuggen”. Wie bei anderen Problemen mit westlichen Systemen, so seine Meinung, sei dies alles darauf zurückzuführen, dass es sich hier um ein übermäßig hochtechnologisches Flugzeug handele.

Im Gegensatz zu uns verlassen sich die Amerikaner zu sehr auf die Stealth-Technik. Die Radartechnologie entwickelt sich jedoch rasant, und Unsichtbarkeit ist kein sicherer Garant für die Luftüberlegenheit mehr. […] Die Amerikaner tolerieren dieses Flugzeug, weil es sich um ein sehr großes und teures Geschäft mit Verträgen in Billionenhöhe handelt. Während sie weiterhin die F-35 bauen, modernisieren die Amerikaner ihre F-18 und F-15 der vierten Generation und versuchen, sie auf das Niveau der russischen Su-35 zu bringen.

— Dmitry Drozdenko zitiert in “‘Su-35 Can See F-35 All Right’: Military Expert Says US Jet ‘Too Complex’“, Sputnik, 15.08.2018.

Der F-35 JPO Program Executive Officer, US-Vizeadmiral Mat Winter, brachte es aus einer anderen Perspektive, nämlich mit Blick auf die hohen Betriebskosten der F-35, wie folgt auf den Punkt: “Wenn Sie es sich leisten können, etwas zu kaufen, es aber auf dem Parkplatz stehen lassen müssen, weil Sie es sich nicht leisten können, es zu besitzen und zu betreiben, dann nützt es Ihnen nicht viel” (Jeremiah Gertler, “F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program“, Congressional Research Service, 27.05.2020, Seite 9f).

Bei aller Kritik ist es auf jeden Fall ein Fortschritt, dass das JSF-Programm zuletzt die Zahl der schweren Kategorie 1-Fehler massiv senken konnte, auch wenn dies manchmal nur durch das bloße “Herunterstufen” von Mängeln möglich war. Andererseits sollte es aber zu denken geben, dass selbst noch in der aktuellen Erprobungsphase bei der Truppe weiterhin neue, schwerwiegende Fehler gefunden werden, obwohl die eigentliche Entwicklungsphase längst abgeschlossen ist. Selbst wenn die schweren und schwersten Fehler erheblich verringert werden konnten, so darf nicht übersehen werden, dass in den letzten vier Jahren die Zahl der ansonsten festgestellten Mängel von rund 1’200 (2016) auf 1’000 (2017) und schließlich 940 (2018) nur auf immer noch 870 gesunken ist, bei denen es sich zu 98% um sogenannte Mängel der Kategorie 2 handelt, also solche, die zu mindestens eine erfolgreiche Missionsbewältigung behindern oder einschränken können. Nach 14 Jahren Entwicklungszeit ist diese anhaltend hohe Anzahl an Fehlern kaum noch vermittelbar. Wesentlich schwerer wiegt der Umstand, dass ALIS als integraler Bestandteil der F-35 so fehlerhaft ist, dass von seinem Einsatz bei der Truppe sogar ausdrücklich abgeraten wird, Updates nicht mehr veröffentlicht werden und nun von einem gänzlich neu erstellten Programm (ODIN) abgelöst werden soll. Bedenkt man, dass die F-35 erst jetzt mit der aktuellen Block 4 Hard- und Softwareversion die volle Kampffähigkeit erhält, die bisherige Block 3F Software aber immer noch nicht stabil läuft, immer neue Softwarefehler auftauchen und der DOT&E ausdrücklich in einer “überhasteten” Einführung von Block 4 ein hohes Risiko sieht, lässt dies für die Zukunft des JSF-Programmes nichts Gutes ahnen. Und dann wären da auch noch die längst bekannten aber immer noch nicht beseitigten Cyber-Verwundbarkeiten bei der F-35 und ihren Hilfskomponenten, die für jeden Hacker aus Russland, China, Nordkorea und dem Iran ein Ansporn sein dürfte, nach Angriffspunkten zu suchen. “Gekrönt” wird das Ganze dann noch durch die interne Gatling-Bordkanone der F-35A, die weiterhin danebenschießt, dabei sogar den Flugzeugrumpf beschädigt und so für die vorgesehene Luftnahunterstützungsrolle (Close Air Support, CAS) bislang ausfällt. Alle diese Punkte münden dann in schlechten bis sehr schlechten Werten für die (volle) Missionsfähigkeit der Maschine, die bereits im Dezember 2006 ihren Erstflug absolvierte.

Quo Vadis F-35?
Die F-35 ist aufgrund ihrer immer noch vorhandenen vielfältigen Software-Fehler und Hardware-Probleme zurzeit weder “Hightech” noch “Desaster” — sie bewegt sich irgendwo dazwischen. Sie ist ein fliegendes Stealth-Kampfsystem der 5. Generation, das nunmehr leidlich funktioniert aber bislang wenig zuverlässig ist, dessen hohe Betriebskosten die Verteidigungshaushalte der Nutzerländer zukünftig arg strapazieren werden und dessen weitere, wesentliche Bestandteile, wie z.B. ALIS, teilweise nicht einsatzfähig sind. Wenn die DGAP gerade die grundsätzliche Eignung und die permanente Verfügbarkeit der F-35 für eine glaubwürdige Abschreckung, auch mit Hilfe der für Deutschland sicherheitspolitisch wichtigen Nuklearen Teilhabe, als wesentliche Merkmale für deren Beschaffung ansieht, dann sollte Deutschland wohl doch besser bei der jetzigen Planung mit der F/A-18E/F bleiben oder alternativ die F-15EX anschaffen.

Posted in Armed Forces, Roger Näbig, Security Policy, Technology | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Addressing the Italian Airlift Gap

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

Vice Admiral Hervé Bléjean, Deputy Commander Allied Maritime Command (centre), presides over the Change of Command Ceremony of Standing NATO Maritime Group Two, between Commodore Josée Kurtz, Royal Canadian Navy (left), and Rear Admiral Paolo Fantoni, Italian Navy, at the Taranto Naval Base, Italy, 16 December, 2019.
Vice Admiral Hervé Bléjean, Deputy Commander Allied Maritime Command (centre), presides over the Change of Command Ceremony of Standing NATO Maritime Group Two, between Commodore Josée Kurtz, Royal Canadian Navy (left), and Rear Admiral Paolo Fantoni, Italian Navy, at the Taranto Naval Base, Italy, 16 December, 2019.

In 2015, the Italian Ministry of Defence released a White Paper that envisions Italy’s national security as inextricably linked to the Euro-Mediterranean region, broadly defined as the countries with a coastline on the Mediterranean or Black Seas but also extending as far as the Mashreq (such as Syria and Iraq), the Sahel (a band stretching from Mauritania in the west to Sudan in the east), the Horn of Africa, and the Persian Gulf. Italy has certainly deployed considerable resources to promote stability in this region over the past decade. Rear Admiral Paolo Fantoni of the Italian Navy currently commands Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2), the Italian Navy has actively participated in Operation Ocean Shield off the Horn of Africa as long as in other multilateral maritime operations, and the Italian Army has troops serving in Libya, Niger, Somalia, and elsewhere. 

However, the capacity to project stability into conflict or post-conflict areas over extended periods depends largely on access to strategic and tactical airlift. African Union (AU) peacekeeping efforts, for example, have often fallen short because of a lack of adequate airlift, leaving the AU to depend on assistance from non-members or to simply end missions. Does Italy have sufficient airlift to reach the ambitious goals it has set for itself in the Euro-Mediterranean region? To answer this, it is worthwhile to examine the Italian military’s airlift capacity in comparison to the tactical airlift available to the militaries of other European Union (EU) member states, namely because the majority of Italian military operations in Africa have been conducted either bilaterally or under the auspices of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

Member StateAirlift FleetTotal Airlift Capacity (kg)
AustriaLockheed C-130K (x3)57,000
BelgiumLockheed C-130H (x9)171,000
BulgariaAntonov An-26 (x1), Alenia C-27J (x2)28,500
Czech RepublicCASA C-295 (x4)28,200
DenmarkLockheed C-130J (x4)76,000
SpainLockheed C-130H (x5), Airbus A400M (x3)206,000
FinlandCASA C-295 (x2)14,100
FranceAirbus A310 (x2), Airbus A400M (x12), Lockheed C-130H (x14), Lockheed C-130J (x2), Transall C-160 (x15), CASA CN-235 (x27)1,214,000
GermanyAirbus A310 (x1), Airbus A400M (x28), Lockheed C-130J (x2), Transall C-160 (x42)1,778,800
GreeceLockheed C-130J (x7), Alenia C-27J (x8)225,800
HungaryAntonov An-26 (x3), Airbus A-319 (x2)42,500
ItalyLockheed C-130J (x15), Alenia C-27J (x8)377,800
LithuaniaAlenia C-27J (x3)34,800
NetherlandsLockheed C-130H (x4)76,000
PolandLockheed C-130E (x5), CASA C-295 (x16)207,800
PortugalLockheed C-130H (x4), CASA C-295 (x5)111’250
RomaniaAntonov An-26 (x2), Lockheed C-130H (x3), Alenia C-27J (x7)149,200
SlovakiaAlenia C-27J (x2)23,200
SwedenLockheed C-130H (x5)95,000
Source: Craig Hoyle, “World Airforces 2020“, Flight International, FlightGlobal, 2020.

In addition to these, it is worth noting that several EU member states have ordered additional Airbus A400M Atlas units in an effort to either modernize or expand their respective airlift capabilities, with delivers of 23 for France, 22 for Germany, 17 for Spain, seven for Belgium, and one for Luxembourg expected soon. The Czech Republic has ordered two Embraer C-390 Millennium, and Portugal intends to replace its Lockheed C-130H fleet with six new C-390’s as well. NATO’s Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) makes available three Boeing C-17 Globemaster III to ten NATO member states (Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, and the United States) and two Partnership for Peace countries (Finland and Sweden). Finally, NATO’s Strategic Airlift International Solution (SALIS) has participation from nine NATO member states – Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia – and ensures access to up to five Antonov An-124-100 aircraft, each capable of transporting as much as 120 tons of cargo.  

Also, not all airlift is created equal. For example, as a converted airliner, the A310-330 can only move personnel and pallets, not military vehicles or other outsized cargo, and it lacks a ramp for loading and offloading, limiting it to airports or airbases with the appropriate cargo handling equipment.

Size comparison of military transport aircraft. Top down: Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules, C-130J-30 Super Hercules (extended), Airbus A400M Atlas, Boeing C-17 Globemaster III.
Size comparison of military transport aircraft.
Top-down: Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules,
C-130J-30 Super Hercules (extended), Airbus A400M
Atlas, Boeing C-17 Globemaster III.

In any case, though Italian airlift ranks third among EU members, it only accounts for 8.2% of their total estimated airlift capacity. At only a fraction of German and French capabilities, Italian policymakers and defence planners should consider how to ensure future access to airlift that better matches the role Italy has envisioned for itself in Africa and the Middle East. Under current circumstances, the Italian Air Force would not be able to transport armoured vehicles, such as Freccia infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), to assist in case of renewed hostilities in Mali. In effect, Italy is limited to the EU Training Mission Mali and would need to evacuate its troops if militant Islamists in that country made a push south to the Malian capital of Bamako. 

One option would be to purchase several aircraft to supplement the existing fleet. Italy had previously participated in the Airbus A400M project until then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ended that involvement in late 2001. The A400M, Embraer’s C-390, or another design could certainly meet Italy’s operational needs if a significant investment in additional units were made. However, this may be difficult to achieve, given the political controversy that has surrounded recent Air Force procurement, such as the objections raised by the Five Star Movement (M5S), a partner in the coalition government, to the purchase of Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

As an alternative, Italy could consider participation in NATO’s SAC, SALIS, or both. This would allow Italy to upscale its presence in conflict or post-conflict areas as needed. Returning to the hypothetical scenario of a Malian escalation: the Italian Air Force’s existing fleet of C-130J Super Hercules and C-27J Spartan would be sufficient to transport troops and their equipment to Mali for the training mission. Additionally, the NATO SAC or SALIS could be tapped to transport armored vehicles if those same Italian troops came under subsequent threat from insurgents. This would be the lowest cost solution to Italy’s airlift gap and would also offer the highest degree of operational flexibility, notwithstanding the potential for multiple simultaneous demands for NATO SAC flying hours from other program participants. It may also be the most politically feasible solution for the current coalition government. Despite some earlier M5S rumblings about NATO, Italian Defence Minister Lorenzo Guerini said in a May 2020 interview that the Alliance “…remains a cornerstone of our security and defence architecture”.

After 20 years, for the first time with the C-130J, the 46 ͣ Pisa Air Brigade of the Italian Air Force again supporting the Italian expedition of Aeneas in October 2019.
After 20 years, for the first time with the C-130J, the 46 ͣ Pisa Air Brigade of the Italian Air Force again supporting the Italian expedition in Antarctica in October 2019.

The Italian example demonstrates the need for policymakers and defence planners everywhere to recognize how airlift, or the lack thereof, can place limitations on stability projection. That relationship must be kept in mind when developing both procurement programs and national defence strategies. If there is a gap between the airlift needed to successfully implement a given country’s defence strategy, then airlift capacity should be improved by procuring additional aircraft, or the strategy should be revised to focus on a closer neighbourhood, into which stability can be projected without additional airlift capacity. With its current capabilities, Italy has envisioned much too ambitious a role for itself in the Euro-Mediterranean, which requires its defence establishment to pursue one of the options described here or to narrow the scope of its involvement in the region to those countries it can successfully reach with sealift, such as Libya.

Posted in Armed Forces, English, International, Italy, Paul Pryce, Security Policy | Tagged , | 4 Comments

The Coronavirus Pandemic and the Technological Progress

Dieser Artikel ist auch in deutscher Sprache verfügbar.

It is not surprising that technology is playing an essential role in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. However, this pandemic is the first of its kind to use modern technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) for almost real-time responses. This can be seen, for example, with Nextstrain, where the geographic spread and mutation of the virus can be tracked by examining its genetic code. Sequencing is an important, fundamental technology here that makes a detailed understanding of the virus and insights into combating the pandemic possible. It has been possible to identify the nucleotide sequence of a DNA or RNA molecule since 1995. However, there has since been breathtaking progress that has revolutionized the biological sciences.

Die Ausbreitungswege des Coronavirus sind verschlungen. Von China aus breitete es sich um den ganzen Erdball aus. Die Farben stehen für verschiedene geografische Regionen. (Quelle: Nextstrain).
The ways of spreading the coronavirus are convoluted. It has spread across the entire planet from its start in China. The colors represent different geographic regions. (Source: Nextstrain).

We are at the point where the best of the best can start to synthesize this new virus contemporaneously with the outbreak. But that is just a few labs. Fortunately, we are still far from the point when lots of people can synthesize anything. — Nicholas G. Evans, cited in Antonio Regalado, “Biologists Rush to Re-Create the China Coronavirus from Its DNA Code“, MIT Technology Review, 15.02.2020.

The progress of the past 25 years can be seen in the speed with which the coronavirus could be sequenced entirely. While the SARS (SARS-CoV) virus took about three months to sequence, the novel coronavirus was sequenced within a month, with the results published January 10, 2020, by Professor Zhang Yong-Zhen of the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center. While globalization made it possible for the virus to spread worldwide quickly, global networking is helping to investigate the virus with its unique scope and nature. Specialized laboratories that have acquired the necessary molecules for a few thousand dollars can use the published genome sequence to assemble a copy of the virus, inject it into a cell, and activate it. Of course, there is also a certain risk associated with this ability, as was demonstrated 20 years ago when a deadly virus was produced from an emailed genome sequence. In order to prevent this technology from falling into the wrong hands and being used for the wrong purpose, orders placed in the United States for specific pieces of DNA are recorded in a database and are only delivered to authorized laboratories. Besides, the technological hurdles for the laboratories remain quite high (for now). The big advantage of this technology is that specialized laboratories around the world can research a virus without the need for a live sample from a contaminated area. Ralph S. Baric, a US coronavirus expert, sees this technology as the future of how the medical research community will respond to new viral threats. In 2008, his laboratory at the University of North Carolina had synthesized a coronavirus for study purposes that have been not existing in nature.

Technologies based on AI not only accelerate the sequencing and analysis of genomes but are also used to support diagnostics and research. Although the analysis of a nasopharyngeal swab is the most common method of a COVID-19 diagnosis, if there is a lack of test kits or if the patient population is very high, AI techniques can use CT scans of the lungs on a triage basis to identify those patients that are most likely to be infected. However, it is rather questionable whether this technique alone can also be used to diagnose an infection. Besides, the diagnosis of a nasopharyngeal swab is more reliable and cheaper if there are enough test kits. By contrast, the use of AI makes more sense when searching for and developing effective treatment and vaccination options. For example, Insilico Medicine used AI techniques to identify thousands of molecules for potential drugs in just four days and published the results on its website. Nevertheless, AI cannot solve every problem: before new treatment methods, or vaccination options can be used, they have to pass time-consuming clinical tests, which cannot be accelerated with modern technologies. It is, therefore, still unlikely that vaccination will be available on the market before the third quarter of 2021. An overview of all the currently researched treatment methods and vaccination options can be found here.

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, there was not only a shortage of test kits in some countries, but with the high number of patients in intensive care units, there were also not enough valves and face masks needed to support the breathing of patients. There was also an inadequate supply of personal protective equipment for medical personnel. In part, such supply issues could be alleviated by using 3-D printers. For example, the Italian start-up Isinnova reverse-engineered a valve that is important for patient ventilation with the permission of its manufacturer Intersurgical, 3-D printed it, and made it available to hospitals in northern Italy. Isinnova has also manufactured a valve that can be used together with the Decathlon Easybreath snorkel mask as an oxygen mask in hospitals. The company Materialise, in turn, is offering a wide range of different products from its 3-D printers: face mask holders, face shield holders, respiratory masks, door openers, and shopping cart holders. In a comprehensive article that he is continuously updating, Michael Petch is tracking the wealth of 3-D printed products being created in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Im Hintergund dieser angeblichen Corona-Tracking-App lauert eine verschlüsselnde Ransomware.
Encrypting ransomware lurks in the background of this
alleged corona tracking app.

Networking plays a central role in all of these technological approaches. However, this networking can have negative consequences when the widespread fear and high demand for information are exploited. In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic in Europe in particular, false information that spread via WhatsApp and Telegram encouraged panic buying. Since the retailers were unable to replenish their shelves quickly enough for logistical and personnel reasons, the gaps suggested a non-existent supply problem, which only exacerbated the hoarding.

In the area of cybercrime, attacks using phishing emails are increasingly being used. These emails usually pretend to contain important information or offer behind a link or a document that presents itself as time-sensitive, but then download malicious and spy software or steal data, as was the case with the two alleged emails from the German bank Sparkasse and the WHO. However, even the mere dissemination of false information can cause physical damage, as demonstrated, for example, by the probable 2,850 methanol poisonings and the resulting 480 deaths in Iran. In this case, it was claimed that drinking industrial alcohol would kill the virus. As another example, in the UK, 5G cell towers were set alight because conspiracy theories claimed that the coronavirus pandemic and 5G were related. Ransomware is a particular type of malware that encrypts the contents of data carriers and only decrypts them once a “ransom” has been paid. For example, ransomware for smartphones lurked in an alleged corona tracking app. Computers in hospitals and medical laboratories are also being targeted by ransomware. In mid-March, for example, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District in Illinois paid a $350,000 ransom to get its decrypted data.

Funktionsweise einer Contact Tracing App.
How a contact tracing app works.

The threats to society that arise from the expansion and increasing use of surveillance options are at a more strategic level. Already end of April, 23 countries had introduced digital contact tracing, and 43 apps existed worldwide that enabled contact tracing. However, not all of these apps are effective or secure. The apps, all of which only use GPS, fail to provide enough precision to prevent false reports. Ten countries have gone even further and have been using facial recognition cameras (in Russia, for example); others have been added heat sensors (for example, China and Singapore), surveillance drones (for example, Australia, China, and India), and networked video surveillance systems (for example, Singapore). Censorship measures have been tightened in at least twelve countries (for example, in China, Cambodia, and Singapore), and internet access has been restricted in at least four countries.

If data is to be recorded, collected, and evaluated using a contact tracing app, for example, to combat the coronavirus pandemic, certain basic conditions must be observed from an ethical perspective. Proportionality must be the first priority, i.e., data collection must be proportionate to the seriousness of the threat to public health or the restriction of public life. The consequences that the restrictive measures designed to contain the pandemic will have on other freedoms and the health consequences in the absence of such restrictive measures fundamentally affirm an ethically justifiable use of contact tracing apps. However, such apps, as well as the data collected and evaluated by them, must be restricted in such a way that they are used only for this one goal, i.e., to warn someone that has come into contact with a person diagnosed as infected. The app and data must not be misused for other purposes, lawful or otherwise, such as criminal investigations, anti-terrorism efforts, etc. In addition, there needs to be scientific proof that the solution delivers the intended added value, which is why contact tracing apps based exclusively on GPS are ethically questionable due to their inaccuracy. Besides, the data collected should be anonymized effectively and stored as decentrally as possible. Information on the recording, collection, and evaluation of data must be provided transparently; this also includes keeping the source code for such apps open. The purpose of the transfer of data to third parties must be clear to the data subjects, and they must be able to rescind permission to such data collection in the future. The use of such apps, as well as the provision of the data, must be voluntary and only for a limited time. When an effective vaccine becomes available, the data collection must be stopped, the app and existing data have to be deleted.

Die Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Lausanne tested ihre dezentralisierte Contact Tracing App, wobei Angehörige der Schweizer Armee als Testpersonen mitgeholfen haben.
The Swiss École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne is testing its decentralized contact tracing app, with members of the Swiss armed forces helping as test subjects.
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From Syria and Iraq to Libya: Turkey repeatedly demonstrates the combat effectiveness of its drones

by Paul Iddon

In recent years, Turkey has demonstrated a hitherto unprecedented capability in both the production and the combat use of its increasingly formidable domestically-built armed drones. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signs a Bayraktar TB2 drone at a military airbase in Batman, Turkey, on Feb. 3, 2018 (Photo: Murat Cetinmuhurdar).
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signs a Bayraktar TB2 drone at a military airbase in Batman, Turkey, on Feb. 3, 2018 (Photo: Murat Cetinmuhurdar).

Turkey first used its drones in the conflicts against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in southeast Turkey and the Syrian Kurds in 2016. Since then, Ankara has used these drones in operations in Iraq, Syria, and even Libya, in each case proving their effectiveness and lethality in different ways. 

Turkey, through statements from its officials and its largely state-run press, frequently extols its increased ability to build new weapons systems domestically, invariably asserting it has made huge progress in weaning itself off its reliance on foreign countries for its military hardware and increasing its self-sufficiently capacity. While the extent of its ability to produce most of its military hardware independently is still debatable, the country has undoubtedly made progress in developing an independent drone capability from the ground up. 

In recent years, Turkey has unveiled an increasing number of armed drones, perhaps most prominent among them being the Bayraktar TB2 and the Anka-S models. Carrying small but precision laser-guided Roketsan MAM-L smart micro munitions, these unmanned aircraft have made Turkey a combat-tested drone power to be reckoned with. 

Aerial assassins over Iraq
An early example of just how effective these drones are was demonstrated when Turkey assassinated İsmail Özden — a senior PKK figure with code-named “Uncle” Zaki Shingali — in Kocho in the Iraqi Sinjar district in August 2018 with a targeted airstrike. He was killed when missiles struck his convoy after leaving a memorial event for victims of the Yazidi genocide perpetrated by the Islamic State

Footage from the Shingali assassination showed a drone tracking two pickup trucks. Two guided missiles then destroyed both vehicles (see video below). It is unclear if the missiles were fired from the drone or if the drone used a laser designator to guide a Turkish F-16 Fighting Falcon to destroy the convoy. Either way, the attack was unprecedented. Before this operation, no other country in the region except Israel had the means to carry out targeted killings beyond its borders.

Since Shingali’s assassination, Turkey has repeatedly demonstrated its game-changing capability of assassinating PKK leaders deep in their Iraqi Kurdish mountain sanctuaries from the air. Turkey’s drones can loiter much lower and for longer periods than Turkish Air Force fighter jets or helicopters can, which is particularly advantageous not only for a lethal attack but also for intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance operations. It is unclear, however, the exact extent to which drones are presently being used in anti-PKK operations in Iraqi Kurdistan, either in surveillance or direct attack roles – they may well be used mostly as spotters for manned airstrikes – since the Turkish military seldom specifies the types of aircraft used in these strikes.

Tank killers over Syria
Aside from targeting guerrilla fighters high in the mountains, Turkey’s drones have also decimated conventional ground forces in Syria’s Idlib during clashes there in February-March 2020. Bayraktar TB2 and Anka-S drones played a major role in these strikes, which commenced following the killing of several Turkish soldiers in clashes in that province with the Syrian regime forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. One airstrike killed at least 34 Turkish troops in a single day on February 27, the largest loss of Turkish soldiers in a single incident in years. 

In return, Turkish drones destroyed hundreds of regime vehicles, artillery, and tanks and killed untold numbers of Syrian troops and militiamen in the Turkish military Operation Spring Shield. The drones also acted as spotters for cross-border Turkish artillery bombardments. 

Thanks to these unmanned drones, Turkey did not have to risk flying either its piloted F-16 or even F-4 Phantom II jet fighter-bombers into Syrian airspace for airstrikes. Turkish F-16s were even able to shoot down three Syrian warplanes over Idlib with their long-range AIM-120 AMRAAMs without having to venture out of Turkish airspace (see infographic above right). 

While Turkey did lose some of its drones to Syrian ground fire, these were relatively inexpensive losses compared to the overall damage they caused. More importantly, Turkey did not have to replace any pilots or drone operators for any of those unmanned aircraft it lost over Idlib. With Turkey planning to build as many as 92 Bayraktar TB2s per year, these drones will likely become much easier to replace than the loss of far more expensive fighter jets. 

Bayraktars over Tripoli
In the ongoing civil war in Libya, Turkish drones have played a very significant role in militarily supporting Ankara’s ally in that conflict, the Government of National Accord (GNA), in the capital Tripoli against the Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by General Khalifa Haftar. While the LNA has proven capable of shooting down several of these drones, they are relatively easy to replace for the reasons mentioned above. Also, Turkey has shown a willingness to replenish drone losses in the conflict, given its unwillingness to let Haftar prevail in that increasingly bitter conflict. Turkish drones have also helped win the GNA some notable battlefield victories. 

The present GNA-LNA conflict exploded in April 2019, when Haftar sought to oust his rivals from Tripoli through a ferocious siege. In June 2019, Turkish Bayraktars gave the GNA decisive air support, helping the group rout the LNA from the city of Gharyan south of the capital, a major supply line for the LNA’s siege in one of its first significant strategic setbacks in the LNA campaign.

In May 2020, Turkish Bayraktar TB2s played another significant role in weakening the LNA’s presence in western Libya. They bombarded the LNA-held al-Wastiya airbase with reportedly no fewer than 57 strikes, allowing the GNA to capture it. Embarrassingly for the LNA, the GNA fighters also captured an intact Pantsir-S1 (NATO reporting name SA-22 Greyhound) air defence missile system that the United Arab Emirates supplied Haftar. TB2s also took out other LNA Pantsir missile systems in May, reportedly with the help of the sophisticated Turkish KORAL Electronic Warfare system that jammed the radars of the Pantsir systems, leaving them vulnerable to air attacks, and the datalink frequencies of the Wing Loong drones used by the LNA. 

While drones have played a significant role in beating back Haftar’s forces in eastern Tripoli, they may not prove as effective in supporting any GNA offensive into eastern Libya, given their limited range. “The Bayraktar drone has a general range of only 150 miles and requires a direct line of sight signal, so any operations east of Sirte would require Ankara and the GNA to either forward-deploy control stations or build relay towers — both of which would be vulnerable to LNA counterattack,” noted an analysis by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

The Bayraktar TB2 drone at Geçitkale Airport near Lefkoniko in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). 

Conclusion 
These battlefield victories strongly indicate that Turkey’s drones are becoming increasingly lethal weapons that Ankara’s various adversaries, both within its frontiers and increasingly further beyond them, will have to contend with.

More information

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European main battle tank project – not open to all EU members?

by Björn Müller (Facebook / Twitter; originally published in German). Björn is a journalist in Berlin focusing on security policy and geopolitics.

Germany and France are working on a concept for a joint battle tank of the future. The so-called Main Ground Combat System – MGCS for short – is not only intended to replace the Leopard 2 of the German Bundeswehr and France’s Leclerc main battle tank in the mid-2030s, according to the claims from Berlin and Paris, the new weapon system is also expected to become the standard tank in Europe.

Quelle: Armin Papperger, "Mobility, Security, Passion", Rheinmetall, 2019.
Source: Armin Papperger, “Mobility, Security, Passion”, Rheinmetall, 2019.

There are currently 11 different tank models in the armed forces of European countries. This shows how heterogeneous and fragmented the European military potential is. A single main battle tank from Poland to Portugal would be a decisive step in the EU’s plan to make Europe a serious military power. Poland would be a crucial test case for opening up the Franco-German initiative into a European tank project. The country on the eastern flank of NATO plays an important role when it comes to the conflict with Russia in defending the military alliance and the EU. The government in Warsaw is aiming to build up strong armoured forces. It has already made clear its wish to participate in the Franco-German  armaments project. However, the Poles have doubts as to whether Germany and France are serious about the prospect of third parties participating.

The impression in Poland is that there is a lot of talk about European weapons systems and European armaments programmes. However, France and Germany primarily mean bilateral Franco-German programmes. The intention is for the arms industry in France and Germany to increase its market share in Europe – at the expense of the defence industry in other countries such as Poland.

Marcin Terlikowski – armaments expert at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) in Warsaw.
Quelle: Armin Papperger, "Mobility, Security, Passion", Rheinmetall, 2019.
Source: Armin Papperger, “Mobility, Security, Passion”,
Rheinmetall, 2019.

In fact, Germany and France have been fixated on dividing up the relevant stakes in the production of a new main battle tank between the German and French armaments industries. For almost five years up until 2019, the German tank forging companies Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) and Rheinmetall contended to lead the armaments project. KMW founded with the French company Nexter the KNDS holding as early as 2015 to procure an advantageous position early on during the MGCS project. CEO and chairman of the executive board of Rheinmetall, Armin Papperger, later pursued the ambitious plan to take over the majority of KNDS. France then feared that this could jeopardise Nexter’s agreed 50 percent production share. In October last year, the three companies finally agreed on an MGCS project company in which Nexter holds 50 percent, and KMW and Rheinmetall each hold 25 percent. The procurement office of the Bundeswehr recently awarded the contract for the system architecture study to the project company. The first results should be available in 2022. Poland, which has until now been left out, could bring its influence to bear in its favour on being a future main customer of the future tank:

Poland will soon need at least 500 main battle tanks to fill gaps in its armoured brigades. 

– Terlikowski

The problem of the Polish armed forces is that the tank units are still largely equipped with older Soviet models. The most modern tanks are outdated German Leopard 2 versions. Poland is, therefore, interested in participating in the Franco-German main battle tank:

Our defence industry is not geared towards European armaments cooperation. We are not involved in European projects. Soviet technology still takes centre stage. And that’s the reason why we want to have access to Western expertise. We want to develop our industrial skills, thereby further.

– Terlikowski
Das 2013 auf der MSPO-Ausstellung in Kielce von OBRUM aus Gleiwitz- Łabędy vorgestellte Designkonzept eines zukünftigen polnische Unterstützungspanzers PL-01 hat sich bis jetzt nicht realisiert.
The design concept of a future Polish PL-01 support tank presented by OBRUM from Gleiwitz-Łabędy at the MSPO exhibition in Kielce in 2013 has not yet been realised. 

Central-Eastern European countries such as Poland are still not partners in major European armaments projects such as the A400M transport aircraft. The Western European countries dominate here, with their large corporations such as Airbus. The use of Soviet-based technology excludes Eastern Europeans. For Terlikowski, the Franco-German tank project would be an excellent opportunity for Poland to overcome this exclusion:

The only armaments area where we could bring something to the table is land systems. Here, we are able to produce some sophisticated platforms and to integrate components available on the global market. For example, we can offer an armoured howitzer on a Samsung chassis or a Czech artillery gun with integrated Polish fire control and communication system. 

– Terlikowski

Poland, therefore, has a significant interest in participating in the Franco-German main battle tank project. However, joining it is not an automatic process. There are reservations against Poland, especially from the French side.

It is noticeable that bilateral relations have deteriorated since 2014. They have also deteriorated in the field of armaments. First of all, from the French perspective, no sustainable reform of the national armaments industry was discernible. On the subject of MGCS, especially, it has not been forgotten in Paris that Poland initially supported an Italian counter-project. Secondly, the American preference seems so dominant that it is hardly compatible with the European preference that Paris supports. The best example is the so-called Caracal Treaty – in 2016, the Polish government cancelled the purchase of Caracal military helicopters in favour of American helicopters. Of course, these gestures between Paris and Warsaw are not ones to inspire confidence. 

Gaëlle Winter – security expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) in Paris.

In addition to the poor relationship with France, there is also the question of how Poland could contribute to the MGCS project. Because when it comes to the upcoming tank of the future, the German and French military want more than just an improved version of tried and tested tank technology like the Leopard 2. The aim is to develop a high-tech system in which robotics and weapons such as high-speed missiles play a crucial role. The new weapon system is meant to become a military “game-changer”. Christian Mölling, Research Director of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin, is skeptical about whether the Poles can contribute to this by pursuing an arms strategy that would be necessary to achieve this:

Does that fit into a larger plan of how they actually want to build up a military defence base? Poland’s current development is that we practically have a centralisation of the Polish defence industry in one large industrial centre. I do not know if this is productive. At least, that is not how innovation has worked in recent years and decades. 

– Mölling

Poland has been trying for some time to reorganise its arms industry. Under the leadership of the Warsaw Ministry of Defence, more than 60 factories have been grouped in the so-called “Polish Armaments Group” (PGZ). The PGZ includes rifle manufacturers and shipyards. The PGZ is to mature into a powerful state arms holding company with the help of increased defense spending. Poland wants to be thereby able to equip its armed forces comprehensively and act as a strong player in the global arms market in the long term. However, there is practically no competition in the country for the “Polish Armaments Group”, which is usually poison when it comes to willingness to invest in research and innovation. Even during the founding phase of the PGZ in 2016, the Polish Audit Office criticised that there was no clear strategy for the political goal of building up a large arms company. For example, no investigation into possible synergistic effects of the companies concerned was carried out in advance. Against this background, Mölling warns against too high expectations of any Polish participation in the Franco-German tank project:

If you look from a competition perspective – from a Polish competition perspective – how many research and development investments have been made in other countries, then you might find that unfair or feel it is a denial of participation. However, in the end, it will not help the Polish industry, nor the German or French industry, to take on board a partner with whom one can subsequently produce products that either cannot be resold at all or are difficult to resell on just one accessible market; because you can’t sell to just anywhere. That also applies to the Germans and the French. It is not as if they were swimming in wealth due to their tank production. The fact that we have one tank production operation between KMW and Nexter – which is the only operation for which the Main Ground Combat System was even made – shows that there is not enough volume on the market. So it is also prudent to have a sense of realism here. 

– Mölling

The example of Poland clearly shows how difficult it will be to turn the Franco-German main battle tank project into a European armaments undertaking in which other EU countries can also participate. As is often the case, there is also a gap here between the declared goal of a common European defence and armaments policy and the national interests and opportunities of the actors. Overcoming these is a Herculean political task.

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The Spoil(ers) of War

by Sascha Bruchmann. Sascha Bruchmann studied International Law and International Politics in Germany and the US. He worked as an analyst, covering the MENA region.

An Afghan security personnel carries a newborn baby from a hospital, at the site of an attack in Kabul on May 12, 2020.
Afghan security personnel carries a newborn baby from
a hospital at the site of an attack in Kabul on May 12, 2020.

On May 12, 2020, a group of gunmen stormed a hospital and maternity ward in Western Kabul, an area known to be religiously Shia and ethnically Hazara. The attackers killed as many as they could before being pinned down by the security forces. In the end, 24 people were killed, including two newborns and their mothers. The Hazara have been attacked again and again in this area over the past years. They have suffered and are angry. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for two other attacks the same day, but not specifically the hospital attack. However, the US government believes ISIS-K is responsible, and some high-ranking Afghan politicians even think that there is no meaningful distinction between ISIS-K and the Taliban. The Taliban have strictly denied any involvement. Still, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has given orders to the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces to attack the Taliban, reversing the defensive posture established since the declaration of a period of declining violence following the US-Taliban peace deal.

Why does an ISIS-K attack lead to the resumption of war between the Afghan government and the Taliban? The logical link seems tenuous at best, and yet the series of events are connected – by politics. Seen through the lenses of peace negotiations and internal balance of power calculations, the Afghan Government response to such a barbaric attack and its deranged sense of conflict logic is understandable. Here is an attempt to share the sense I make of a senseless crime.

Who are ISIS-K?
Assuming that ISIS-K exists inside Afghanistan, as Antonio Giustozzi has meticulously researched in his book “The Islamic State in Khorasan“, it all started with a detachment of Haqqani fighters sent from Pakistan to support fellow Jihadists in Syria in 2012. They returned in 2013 with a divergence of views from their old leadership.

Screenshot from a video of a ISIS-K training in Nangarhar published in 2015.
Screenshot from a video of an ISIS-K training in Nangarhar published in 2015.

In parallel, elements of a Pakistani Pashtun sub-tribe, the Orakzai, were pushed across the Pakistan-Afghan border during the Pakistani military operation Zarb-e Azb II in 2014. Some of these Orakzai were members of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban fighting an insurgency against the Pakistani government. Initially welcomed by the Pashtun Afghans, newly settled TTP fighters came to clash with locals in Southern Nangarhar. In the absence of either government or Taliban power projection and a deteriorating, almost anarchic security situation, the newly minted Jihadi Haqqanis who had returned from Syria and the TTP elements found common cause and ISIS-K in Eastern Afghanistan was born. The ongoing forced migration of the Orakzai and a plethora of other local and foreign militias already present has made it fertile ground for ISIS-K to take root. 

Now ISIS-K is a melting pot of different Afghan, Pakistani, and international Sunni radicals. It includes former Taliban from the Afghan and Pakistani franchises, with little in common. United only by religious zeal, it repeats the playbook that worked in the Middle East: attack Shia; cause their (over)reaction; within a climate of sectarian tension, pretend to be the savior of the threatened Sunni. ISIS-K wants the Hazara and other Shias to suffer and subsequently arm themselves. Once they do, ISIS-K will tell the Sunnis in Afghanistan that only ISIS-K is able to save them. That is the trap.

ISIS-K has attacked the ethnically Hazara population in Western Kabul with increasing regularity since 2014. Gruesome bombings on soft civilian targets have included: a protest march of the “Enlightenment Movementbombed in July 2016, a mosque attacked in June 2017, a wedding bombed in August 2019, and a memorial ceremony attacked in March 2020. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for most of these attacks.

Afghan protesters raise their hands as they chant anti-government slogans during a demonstration in Kabul in May 2016, held to demand that The Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TUTAP) electricity line linking energy-rich central Asia pass through a central Hazara-dominated area.
Afghan protesters raise their hands as they chant anti-government slogans during a demonstration in Kabul in May 2016, held to demand that The Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TUTAP) electricity line linking energy-rich central Asia pass through a central Hazara-dominated area.

What do they want?
ISIS-K wants to establish a caliphate. To do so, it needs to replace the Taliban. ISIS-K’ strategy is to grow through a sectarian war. Pir-Mohammed Molla-Zehi, an Iranian analyst, warned his Iranian countrymen in a 2017 interview not to send Afghan Hazara – known as the Fatemiyoun – used by Iran in the fight against ISIS in the Middle East back to Afghanistan: “The Fatemiyoun and other Divisions supported by Iran, are still not capable of mobilizing the Sunnis… With its past record, should the Fatemiyoun Division return to Afghanistan and not recruit Sunnis, it will in reality play the game of the Islamic State.” ISIS-K commander Abu Omar Khorasani justified bombing the rally on the “Enlightenment Movement” as early as July 2016 in sectarian terms.

Meanwhile, reports about the Fatemiyoun claim they have more than 10,000 fighterseven 20,000 fighters and that 50,000 Afghan refugees were recruited between 2013 and 2017. Hundreds have died. Moreover, the incentives were money and often a residence permit in Iran. Fighters were recruited from migrants inside Iran and have even built permanent bases in Syria.

Are they back in Afghanistan? The actual number inside Afghanistan is probably closer to 2,000. Rahmatullah Nabil, former Chief of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency NDS estimates 2,500-3,000 and that upon return to Afghanistan, the fighters scatter to their homes. It is reasonable to assume that the Fatemiyoun strength, organizational capacity, and will to fight are often grossly overestimated for domestic political purposes inside Afghanistan. One of the groups merged into the Fatemiyoun, Sepah-e Muhammad, were veteran Afghan anti-Taliban fighters. Iranian influence in Afghanistan today is much more diversified and less sectarian.

Nonetheless, the ISIS-K leadership believes the Sunni-Shia divide needs to come to a final battle in Khorasan. They are ready to attack. ISIS-K has limited appeal among Afghans and mostly exists in a vacuum of order and where the wars of the past decades have deposited Wahhabi and Salafi radicalism. This includes parts of Southern NangarharKunarWarduj and Kajaki. ISIS-K has been actively targeted by US forces, Afghan forces, and especially the Taliban in 2019 and was diminished. While the Afghan government declared its victory, the recent attacks show, this pronouncement was premature.

Qasem Soleimani (left) with Afghan Alireza Tavasoli, commander of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, who was killed fighting in Syria.
Qasem Soleimani with Afghan Alireza Tavasoli, commander of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, who was killed fighting in Syria.

A convenient scapegoat?
If ISIS-K wants to transplant a sectarian conflict from the Middle East to Afghanistan – with limited appeal – why does the Afghan government use an attack for the purpose to declare an offensive against the Taliban in the midst of a US-Taliban peace process? 

The Afghan government felt mostly excluded from US-Taliban talks, which culminated in the 29 February US-Taliban agreement. The Afghan government resisted much of the deal’s content, felt it was forced upon them, and believed it would weaken the Afghan Republic and constitution. Ghani and the young, reformist class around him want peace, but they want it on their terms – which means maintaining the status quo as much as possible. Along with feeling weakened vis-a-vie negotiations with the Taliban thanks to the US deal, the Afghan government fears dilution of its influence in the domestic fight against the older political classes: the former Northern Alliance and the supporters of former President Hamid Karzai. A fear played out in negotiations that culminated in the uneasy 17 May political settlement reached between Ghani and former Chief Executive Abdullah that extra-constitutionally seeks to increase the power of traditional structures, strong tribes, and power brokers – those often branded warlords and jihadis, mafias, backward minded or Taliban sympathizers – at the expense of those young, urban, nationalist Afghans aligned with Ghani. Simply, the government does not want the current US-driven vision of “peace”.

Cue, ISIS-K as a spoiler to the US imposed “peace”. ISIS-K, which has a history and ideology similar to some Taliban factions, alleged support from Pakistan and even some former Taliban in its ranks. The new 1st Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, was firm in its indictment and made the connection between ISIS-K and the Taliban shortly after the attack. In a similar vein, Ghani mentioned the “symbiotic and organic relations between the Taliban and Daesh” in his inauguration speech on March 10, 2020.

For Saleh, the Taliban and ISIS-K exist as a continuum of pawns of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, born of the idea of strategic depth as envisioned by former Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq. Thus, to Saleh and others, the Islamists are all one. This is a popular opinion among the urban, nationalist youth and hardly a new one among international analysts, and has recently even resonated inside Pakistan. Some ISIS-K are former Taliban; they are using similar tactics, conduct similar attacks, and are recruiting in the same areas, and ISIS-K sees the Afghan government also as an enemy.

So, Saleh is right? It is more complex than that. The Taliban fight ISIS-K. They have fought massive battles in NangarharJowzjanKunar and other areas last year. ISIS-K wants to usurp the Islamist throne in Afghanistan and make it a hotbed for transnational Jihadism, whereas the Taliban want to rule in Afghanistan. They compete for funds, recruits, territory. ISIS-K wants to replace the Taliban. Because they are so similar in some ways, they cannot coexist and are in mortal combat. The Taliban also believe ISIS-K is way too useful for the US in the peace negotiations. They believe the presence and existence of ISIS-K could be used by the US to demand counter-terrorism forces stay behind after the peace deal. The Taliban want US forces out. The Taliban fear, ISIS-K would be a convenient tool to say, if you cannot destroy them, we need our military and intelligence footprint.

So what?
Foreign Policy asked if the peace deal is dead on arrival? Not just yet. Some are fighting to kill it, while some are fighting to preserve it. Afghan politics is divided, so are the opinions of veteran military and diplomats. To start a sectarian conflict, ISIS-K will continue its terrible attacks for its agenda. The Fatemiyoun is less of a threat inside Afghanistan than it is made to appear. ISIS-K attacks will be used for politics between the US, Taliban, and Afghan government, with all trying to emphasize their view on the peace deal through the lens of these horrific attacks. ISIS and the Fatemiyoun are thus, proxies, in more than one sense. Their actions are watched and exploited by their sponsors and enemies alike.

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar shake hands after signing the peace agreement between US, Taliban, in Doha in February 2020.
US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar shake hands after signing the peace agreement between the US, Taliban, in Doha in February 2020.

ISIS-K is a catalyst. It is a spoiler, but its actual battlefield power is limited. It has proven resilient in some areas and will use the current government infighting, the offensive against the Taliban, US withdrawal, and the COVID-19 pandemic to lick its wounds. ISIS-K will be able to grow back in those communities where it has some local support. It is up to the Afghan government, power brokers, and the Taliban to stick to peace. When they turn their weapons on each other, ISIS-K will thrive in the vacuum. ISIS-K only has space to incite sectarian violence if the other powers grant it in their political and military conflict.

The US-Taliban peace deal is under much pressure. Despite 40 years of conflict, the country seems on the verge of being ripe for peace. However, fears about losing are dominant in parts of the cities that have been free of Taliban influence for the past 20 years, especially amongst the educated young and winners of the past 20 years. Meanwhile, the countryside has been ravaged by conflict lines moving across the country like wandering dunes. Many villages are ready for peace. Cities are ready too, but not for the price that they fear – the return of Sharia rule as used by the Taliban until 2001. War will go on as long as this equation does not change. Unfortunately, ISIS is one of those groups trying to change it. It needs to be stopped.

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China Builds Carrier Support Infrastructure on Hainan

Maxar imagery acquired November 2019
Maxar imagery acquired November 2019

In December 2019, China commissioned its second aircraft carrier Shandong (CV-17) at the Sanya-Yulin naval base on Hainan Island near the South China Sea. Officials announced that the location will become the vessel’s home-port where it will join the 9th Destroyer Flotilla. This outcome has been speculated since 2012 when workers constructed a carrier berth on the island. Ongoing monitoring of additional construction activity now suggests that China likely intends to build a new graving dock large enough to accommodate its aircraft carriers and other large surface combatants. The graving dock, located at 18.2167 109.5572 immediately north of the carrier pier, continues to see significant progress. Once the dock is complete, Chinese carriers operating in the South Sea Fleet could undergo extensive maintenance and or refits without relocating back to Dalian or potentially other commercial docks. It’s yet another indicator of China’s commitment to support a growing presence in the region.

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