India and China have backed away from their mountaintop showdown, but they’re still on a dangerous path

India China Pangong Lake cricket
Children play cricket by Pangong Lake, near the India-China border in Ladakh, India, July 22, 2011.

  • On February 11, India and China began withdrawing from their positions on Pangong Lake after nine months of tense military confrontation.
  • The successful disengagement lowers the risk of another clash, do not guarantee peace or even an improvement in Sino-Indian ties.
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Along the waters of Pangong Lake, high up in the Himalayas, there was a slackening of shoulders and a collective sigh of relief on February 11.

After nine months of tense military confrontation, which included the first deadly clash in decades between Indian and Chinese troops along their disputed border, the two sides began withdrawing from their positions on the southern and northern banks of the lake as part of a phased, synchronized military disengagement.

By mitigating the risk of another skirmish or accident, the move has brought Beijing and New Delhi back from the brink in their border standoff. The successful disengagement was followed up on February 20 with a 10th round of meetings between the Indian and Chinese commanders in the region.

Five days later, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar spoke by phone with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, affirming the disengagement as “a significant first step,” according to an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson. The two sides also unveiled plans to establish a diplomatic hotline to aid in future crisis management.

China India Galway Himalayas border clash
A still image of a mid-June 2020 clash between Chinese troops, foreground and Indian soldiers, right and background, along the Line of Actual Control in the Galwan Valley, in the Himalayas, released by China on February 20, 2021.

While positive, these de-escalatory steps do not guarantee peace, much less a return to conciliatory Sino-Indian ties.

“This is a tactical withdrawal, and it is temporary on both sides,” cautioned Shivshankar Menon, a former Indian national security adviser, in an interview with The Wire, an Indian news outlet. A political agreement on how to resolve the larger border dispute is still lacking, and there is little trust left to speak of between New Delhi and Beijing, making the path ahead perilous.

The two rivals continue to blame one another for the deadly brawl last June in the Galwan Valley, offering conflicting accounts of what precipitated it. Press reports indicate that starting last April, Chinese troops moved into territory previously patrolled by India and began constructing fortifications, which led to the standoff.

But both sides maintained that it was the other advancing beyond their agreed-upon patrol areas that led to the clash. At the time, India said that 20 of its soldiers were killed in the hand-to-hand combat, while China belatedly announced last month that four of its soldiers had died.

Now, Indian officials are emphasizing the need to verify that all agreements are being “observed in letter and spirit,” as Gen. Manoj Naravane, India’s army chief, put it in recent public remarks. Both militaries will be watching closely to ensure the other does not renege on their commitments.

Synchronized pullbacks are fragile; it is worth remembering that the Galwan Valley clash occurred in the midst of a failed effort at disengagement. Even if it sticks, the Pangong Lake withdrawal is merely the start of a complex process.

Naravane has admitted there is still “a long way to go,” and that both sides must now focus on de-escalation and troop withdrawal from other areas along the Line of Actual Control, the de facto demarcation that separates Indian- and Chinese-controlled territory.

Troops have not drawn back from the other flashpoints along the border in the eastern Ladakh region, including Gogra, Hot Springs, Demchok and the Depsang Plains. Both militaries still have more troops near the Line of Actual Control than they did prior to last spring.

India army convoy Kashmir Ladakh
An Indian army convoy on a highway leading to Ladakh, June 18, 2020.

India is also concerned about Chinese activity in the disputed eastern sector of the border, on the other side of the Tibetan plateau from Ladakh, around the Indian states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Here, China has significantly upgraded its military presence and infrastructure over the past year.

Keeping the border quiet will be especially difficult after the norms governing the border forces came undone last spring. The old rule book may no longer hold.

In the wake of last month’s disengagement, Chinese officials and state media have called for a reset in the bilateral relationship. Wang, for example, said over the weekend that the two sides must “expand and enhance cooperation to create enabling conditions for the settlement of the [border] issue.”

But this will be nearly impossible given Beijing’s role in initiating the standoff last spring. China’s actions since, and its belligerent statements during the disengagement process itself, have ensured that the border dispute will remain charged.

China’s announcement on February 19, revealing for the first time that some of its soldiers had been killed in the Galwan clash, came in the form of a highly nationalistic video. It hailed the slain soldiers as heroes, while redoubling Beijing’s allegations that India had been the aggressor.

The video roiled anti-Indian sentiment in China and raised eyebrows in India at a sensitive moment, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government having to assure Parliament that it had not ceded any territory to China.

By publicly confirming that four Chinese soldiers had lost their lives in the clash – as opposed to India’s 20 – Beijing was declaring a sort of political victory over India. This public relations blitz, just as the two militaries were finishing their joint withdrawal, made Beijing’s talk of reconciliation ring hollow.

Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China’s aggressive moves in other domains have complicated matters further.

Chinese state-sponsored hackers reportedly conducted cyberattacks on India’s power grid and other critical infrastructure last year, just as Indian and Chinese soldiers faced off along the border, according to The New York Times. One such attack last October was responsible for 20 million people in Mumbai losing power.

While Indian authorities were already aware that China was behind the attacks, the report hardened anti-Chinese sentiment among many Indians and added pressure on the government to demonstrate that it was being tough in the face of Chinese aggression. The increasingly hostile public mood in both countries will make it harder for each government to compromise in the coming weeks and months.

The cyberattacks were also consequential in crystallizing Indian suspicions about China. Increasingly, policymakers and strategic experts in New Delhi see China not as an irritant neighbor but an outright rival bent on constraining India’s rise.

They view Beijing as actively encroaching on India’s sphere of influence in South Asia – from Nepal to Sri Lanka to the Indian Ocean – and blocking its ambitions for permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council and entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an organization that seeks to control the export of nuclear materials, equipment and technology to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

FILE PHOTO: A man walks inside a conference room used for meetings between military commanders of China and India, at the Indian side of the Indo-China border at Bumla, in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, November 11, 2009. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo
A conference room used for meetings between Chinese and India military commanders in Arunachal Pradesh, November 11, 2009.

Beyond the border dispute, India has sought out ways to push back more broadly against its rival. It has countered China’s global vaccine diplomacy with its own, shipping millions of free COVID-19 vaccines to other developing countries. It is also enhancing security cooperation with Washington to blunt China’s rise.

Ultimately, though, New Delhi’s options are limited. Beijing’s superior military and economic capabilities make a broader confrontation unwise for India. For example, New Delhi’s efforts at economic warfare, banning Chinese social media apps and canceling China-backed infrastructure projects, have had only limited success.

Despite those measures, China displaced the United States to become India’s largest trading partner in 2020. Attempting to decouple more fully with Beijing will not only be difficult, it could also do lasting damage to India’s own economy.

With no political solution to the border issue on the horizon, the military disengagement merely provides temporary relief for a chronic problem. As the border remains tense, Sino-Indian competition will increasingly play out in other arenas as well.

This leaves the relationship between the two nuclear-armed neighbors in a tenuous place, constrained by a range of conflicting interests, a lack of trust and increasingly adverse public attitudes.

Anubhav Gupta is associate director of the Asia Society Policy Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @AndyGupta21.

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The Air Force has changed its height standards, opening the door for more women pilots

Zoe Kotnik F-16 Air Force pilot
Capt. Zoe Kotnik clips on her mask in her F-16 prior to a sortie at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, November 2017.

  • The US Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command announced interim changes to height standards for career enlisted aviators.
  • The changes will make those positions available to more recruits entering the enlisted ranks, particularly women, without needing a waiver.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

In keeping with their efforts to improve branch-wide diversity, the US Air Force (USAF) Air Education and Training Command (AETC) announced interim changes to their dated height standards for Career Enlisted Aviators (CEAs).

The updates come as the result of preliminary information gathered from an ongoing anthropometric study that the Air Force began last year.

The study’s aim is to provide the Air Force with current and accurate data on what is physically necessary for specific Air Force Specialty Codes (AFSCs). The revised height restrictions, effective immediately, are seen below:

Air Force height requirements
Air Force interim height standards.

The Air Force announcement will make CEA positions available to a significant portion of recruits entering the enlisted ranks, particularly women, without the need for a waiver.

This comes less than a year after a similar order that removed the requirement for pilots to be over 5’4″ or under 6’5,” the same standard that was applied to enlisted aviation careers.

The Air Force saw the need to update their requirements that were based on a 1967 study that observed almost entirely white male pilots. Much of that old study evaluated the subject’s ability to reach controls while in a seated position, which does reflect operational requirements for many modern CEAs.

“The former policy was not applicable to career enlisted aviators, as the vast majority of CEAs move throughout the aircraft for the duration of the duty day,” said CMSgt Philip Leonard, the Air Force’s CEA career field manager.

The new measure is a boost to the inclusion of women in the armed forces, most notably minority women. Monday’s statement from the AETC cites data from the US National Center for Health Statistics that says 43.5% of US women aged 20-29 (including 74% of African Americans, 72% of Latino Americans and 61% of Asian Americans) are under 64 inches tall. This compares with only 3.7% of American males of the same age.

Air Force F-35 pilot Kristen Wolfe
Capt. Kristin Wolfe, F-35A Demonstration Team pilot, prepares for takeoff at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, February 6, 2020.

The Air Force has approved 87% of the height waivers it has processed since 2015, but many applicants may not be aware of the likelihood that they’ll be approved, or may be discouraged from applying in the first place when they see they don’t meet the requirement, as noted by Stephen Losey of Air Force Times.

Expanding the range for eligibility without a waiver encourages the spirit of diversity the Air Force is setting its sights on.

“We’re really focused on identifying and eliminating barriers to serve in the Air Force,” said Gwendolyn DeFilippi last May. DeFilippi is assistant deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services. “This is a huge win, especially for women and minorities of smaller stature who previously may have assumed they weren’t qualified to join our team.”

35% of Air Force aviator careers are enlisted personnel. The interim revisions open up those fields to a much more diverse pool of candidates.

Women under 5’4″ can now serve without a waiver as in-flight refuelers, flight engineers, flight attendants, aircraft loadmasters, airborne mission systems operators and airborne cryptologic language analysts, among others.

The study that precipitated the shift in policy is expected to be completed by fall of 2022, and should give the Air Force more actionable data to remove unnecessary restrictions on service members of smaller stature.

“We must implement change with a sense of purpose and with the Department of Defense’s strategic position in mind,” added Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, AETC commander. “Enacting this meaningful change ensures the type of agile, lethal and diverse force we need to be.”
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Biden has settled one of Trump’s feuds with a close US ally, but there are still thornier issues to deal with

south korea military exercise
South Korean marines in blue headbands and US Marines take position during a joint amphibious landing exercise in Pohang, South Korea, March 12, 2016.

  • By signing a new military cost-sharing agreement with South Korea, the Biden administration has settled a fight picked by the Trump administration.
  • But the US-South Korea relationship still faces long-term bilateral defense issues and shifting US priorities in the region.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The completion of a long-term, military cost-sharing deal resolves a point of tension between the United States and South Korea, signaling a renewed US emphasis on regional allies.

But it still leaves thornier bilateral defense issues and shifting US priorities in the region, which will change the US-South Korea defense relationship over the next 10 years.

On March 8, US and South Korean negotiators reached an agreement in principle on the renewal of their military cost-sharing Special Measures Agreement (SMA) after three successive days of talks in Washington, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced March 8.

The US State Department said on March 7 that the agreement would extend through 2025 and include a “meaningful increase” in South Korea’s share of the expenses to support US troop deployments in the country.

  • Although the full details have not been released, earlier leaks indicated that as part of an effort to smooth over ties with South Korea, the Biden administration was willing to accept a 13% increase in South Korean contributions over the previous $925.3 million agreement. If confirmed, this is far short of the administration of former US President Donald Trump’s reported hardline push for a fivefold increase to $5 billion per year.
  • As part of a global push to increase the military burden-sharing of allies, Trump had pressured South Korea to substantially expand its contributions. A one-year 2018-2019 agreement expired and gave way to over a year of fruitless talks that saw South Korean personnel furloughed for three months from April before Seoul offered $200 million in stopgap funding.
  • On February 17, a US-Japan cost-sharing agreement was reached on their deal expiring in March that extended the current agreement to April 2022. The deal didn’t change the $1.9 billion in annual Japanese contributions to allow time for negotiations on a longer pact. The Trump administration had reportedly been pushing for an annual payment of $8 billion.
us korea joint training
A South Korean K1 tank fires during a joint military exercise with the US in Pohang, South Korea, July 6, 2016.

Inking this cost-sharing deal, however, was relatively easy compared with ongoing thornier discussions on issues, such as South Korea’s desire to regain wartime control of its armed forces from the United States.

With around one year before South Korea’s next presidential election, such talks will be highly politicized given the internal divisions in South Korea between progressives favoring greater military independence and conservatives focused on continuity in the US alliance.

  • Before the March 2022 presidential election, the administration of President Moon Jae-in aims to regain Operational Control Authority (OPCON) from the United States, which would allow the South Korean government to control its military during wartime in contrast to the current arrangement in which such forces would be led by a US general. The progressive arm of South Korean politics sees this as necessary to allow greater latitude in dealing with North Korea.
  • The United States, however, may hesitate to make sweeping changes in OPCON given the continued North Korean threat amid the stagnation in the US-North Korea outreach on denuclearization – a factor that former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, said in 2018 could allow for a drawdown during progress with Trump’s outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
FILE PHOTO: U.S. army soldiers take part in a U.S.-South Korea joint river-crossing exercise near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Yeoncheon, South Korea, April 8, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo
US soldiers take part in a US-South Korea joint river-crossing exercise near the demilitarized zone in Yeoncheon, South Korea, April 8, 2016.

The precise nature of the US-South Korea defense relationship is still in flux.

While the United States will continue to focus on South Korea as a key regional partner, it may shift away from massive troop deployments on the Korean Peninsula in favor of flexible and mobile troop deployments with greater standoff distance from the Asian mainland, with a particular focus on Japan.

  • With countering China’s regional rise firmly established as the key US objective in the Indo-Pacific, Japan offers greater latitude for the US military to maneuver without the liabilities of South Korean troop deployments, which are costly and leave US personnel in the line of fire in the event of a deterioration in North Korean relations.
  • On March 8, Biden’s nominee for undersecretary of defense for policy, Colin Kahl, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US troop numbers in South Korea were not fixed and pointed to Biden’s pledge to carry out a global posture review to realign military deployments with the global threat environment.
  • On March 5, US leaks indicated long-term plans to station precision-strike missiles along the so-called “first island chain,” which geographically runs from Japan through Taiwan to the Philippines, as part of the $27.4 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative military fund that aims to counter Chinese regional clout.
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Navy photos show a patrol plane armed with anti-ship missiles in the Middle East

Navy P-8A Poseidon AGM-84 Harpoon missile
Sailors load an AGM-84 Harpoon missile onto a P-8A Poseidon aircraft in the 5th Fleet area of operations, January 15, 2021.

  • A Navy P-8A Poseidon is shown carrying AGM-84D Harpoon missiles in photos taken in January but released this month.
  • It’s not the first time a Poseidon has been spotted with that kind of weapon, but it appears to be the first time a P-8 in the Persian Gulf has been seen with it.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The US Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft have started flying missions in the US 5th Fleet AOR (Area of Operations) carrying AGM-84D Harpoon missiles.

Images just released by the naval service through the DVIDS network show sailors assigned to the “Fighting Tigers” of Patrol Squadron 8, deployed with Commander, Task Force (CTF) 57, performing preflight checks on AGM-84 Harpoon missiles carried by a P-8A of VP-8 ahead of a mission in the US 5th Fleet area of operations (that encompasses the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean) on January 15-16, 2021.

While the location where the images were taken has not been disclosed, it seems quite likely that the P-8A was being serviced at its usual deployment base in Manama, Bahrain, where P-3 Orion and Poseidon aircraft supporting CTF-57 are usually based.

CTF-57 is the maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft Task Force for the US 5th Fleet, Naval Forces Central Command, and Combined Maritime Forces.

CTF-57 aircraft conduct missions in support of maritime operations to ensure stability, security, and the free flow of commerce in the Central Command area of responsibility, which connects the Mediterranean and Pacific through the Western Indian Ocean.

Navy P-8A Poseidon
A P-8A Poseidon on a flight line in the 5th Fleet area of operations, January 16, 2021.

The AGM-84D Harpoon is an anti-ship missile that complements the Mk 54 air-launched lightweight torpedo, used for ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) mission.

It’s obviously not the first time the Poseidon is spotted carrying this kind of weapon, although it’s the first time we see this armament on a P-8 deployed to the Persian Gulf area.

We don’t know where the Poseidon with its live Harpoon payload flew after the shots were taken.

The P-8s are a common presence in the Persian Gulf area, where they have often been tracked by means of their Mode-S transponders. However, they also extend their patrols to the Gulf of Oman and to the Horn of Africa, where they support anti-piracy operations.

Still, considered when the image was taken (mid-January, a period of intense Iranian naval activity in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz), it seems more likely that that kind of weaponry was loaded to deter any kind of attack against US Navy warships and commercial traffic in the area.

In fact, the US has maintained a significant naval presence in region consistently since May 2019, as a hedge against Iran. Since then, a carrier strike group has been positioned in the Gulf round-the-clock, with few gaps in presence.

At the beginning of February, USS Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group and embarked Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 164 (Reinforced), 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (with its F-35Bs) transited the Strait of Hormuz to operate in the Persian Gulf replacing USS Nimitz, after supporting Operation Octave Quartz off the coast of Somalia.

Navy P-8A Poseidon AGM-84 Harpoon missile
A sailor preforms a preflight check on an AGM-84 Harpoon missile on a P-8A Poseidon aircraft in the US 5th Fleet area of operations, January 16, 2021.

P-8As are maritime patrol aircraft but even when they are not loaded with anti-ship missiles or toperdos, they carry a wide array of sensors that give the aircraft the ability to operate in the ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) battlespace. Here’s what we have already explained in a previous article here at The Aviationist:

[…] the P-8s are multi-mission platforms that can gather valuable intelligence using a wide array of sensors. Among these, an Advanced Airborne Sensor (a dual-sided AESA radar that can offer 360-degree scanning on targets on land or coastal areas, and which has potential applications as a jamming or even cyberwarfare platform according to Northrop Grumman); an APY-10 multi-mode synthetic aperture radar; an MX-20 electro-optical/infrared turret for shorter-range search; and an ALQ-240 Electronic Support Measure (ESM) suite, able to geo-locate and track enemy radar emitters. Moreover, all sensors contribute to a single fused tactical situation display, which is then shared over both military standard and internet protocol data links, allowing for seamless delivery of information amongst U.S. and coalition forces.

In that respect, the P-8A Poseidon represents a huge leap forward if compared to the P-3 Orion. For instance, the externally mounted AP/ANY-10 MTI imaging radar system (upgrade from the P-3’s Littoral Surveillance Radar System – LSRS), adds both an overland and maritime MTI capability approaching the fidelity provided by the US Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS). The significant difference with the more modern P-3s is, in particular, in the P-8’s ability to rapidly exchange and share information internally among the crew and externally among joint partners.

H/T Ryan Chan for the heads-up!

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China’s military is keeping a close eye on the US’s development of a new, advanced fighter jet

F-22 raptor f 22
US Air Force F-22 Raptors.

The US Air Force’s desire to radically reshape and accelerate the way it develops future fighter planes could propel China to ramp up its plans for next-generation aircraft, Chinese experts said.

A military insider familiar with China’s next-generation aircraft project said Chinese aircraft designers were keeping a close eye on anything disclosed by their American counterparts about NGAD, or the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) programme.

If implemented, NGAD would create a network of advanced fighter aircraft, sensors and weapons, with jets and autonomous drones fighting side by side rather than as a single-aircraft platform or technology.

“China has also planned to develop a next-generation aircraft, but so far just specifically for the air force not for the navy, calling it a ‘background plane,'” said the insider, who requested anonymity.

“Because of a lack of reflection standards and relevant parameters, there are doubts around the development progress of the background plane.”

The US has announced two next-generation programmes: NGAD for the Air Force, and the F/A-XX for the Navy, a long-term plan to develop next-generation ship-borne aircraft to complement and eventually replace the current F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters.

In September, the US Air Force revealed it had flown a full-scale demonstration model built as part of its NGAD programme.

The fighter is one of at least two sixth-generation jets being developed by US contractors to maintain the USAF’s technological edge, according to the Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan released in 2016.

At a US Air Force Association symposium last week, Gen. Mark Kelly, head of Air Combat Command, said the Air Force needed to have its next-generation air dominance fighter soon if it wanted to compete with China.

“What I don’t know – and we’re working with our great partners – is if our nation will have the courage and the focus to field this capability before someone like the Chinese fields it and uses it against us,” he said.

“We just need to make sure we keep our narrative up and articulate the unambiguous benefit we’ve had as a nation to have that leading-edge technology ensuring we have air superiority for the nation and the joint force.”

China J 20 Stealth Fighter
China unveils its J-20 stealth fighter during an air show in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, China, November 1, 2016.

Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said Chinese aircraft designers would welcome US Air Force efforts to speed up the launch of NGAD fighters.

“Before making the direction of new aircraft, Chinese aircraft designers should clarify the parameters of their rival aircraft, especially the American fighters, including their combat range, speed, flying height and other dogfight capabilities, for basic reference,” he said.

Development of the country’s J-20, the PLA’s most advanced stealth fighter jet, was smooth because its design was based on its American rival, the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, he said.

The F-22 entered service in 2005, while China’s J-20 was launched in 2011 and formally joined the PLA Air Force in 2017. But China has failed to produce the WS-15 tailor-made engine designed for the J-20 fighters, and must still use the Russian AL-31F engine and its lesser home-made version, the WS-10C.

Steve Burgess, an aircraft specialist at the US Air War College, said the NGAD was aimed at developing a new fighter for the 2020s, a move to further reinforce the status of the US military as the global leader, as well as widen the gap between China and his country.

“Engine design problems will continue to hold China back [in their next-generation aircraft development programme],” he said, adding that Chinese aircraft technology still failed to threaten the US.

But Song Zhonging, a former PLA instructor, said China’s defence industry had more “privileges” than the US in terms of funding, compared with the strict budget approval process in the US.

US Congress has approved US$904 million of the Air Force’s US$1 billion request in the 2021 financial year, a sign of limited support by American lawmakers. In the 2020 financial year, the service received US$905 million for the programme.

Because of the high cost of an F-22 – about US$250 million – the last one was delivered in 2012. Amid criticism from taxpayers, the Pentagon decided to develop the inferior and lower-cost single-engine F-35 Lightning, for more than US$1 trillion over the 60-year lifespan of the programme, making it the most expensive weapons project in the American military.

“Thanks to the increasing pressure from the US … that has encouraged Chinese leadership to pour and mobilise all resources and manpower to strengthen the country’s defence industry,” Song said.

Russia has announced that the country’s two aerospace juggernauts Mikoyan (MiG) and JSC Sukhoi have joined hands to build a conceptual sixth-generation fighter jet, the MiG-41 interceptor, under the PAK DP programme.

Western European countries are trying to develop their own new-generation aircraft such as the Future Combat Air System and Tempest fighters.

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How a 6th-grade history project exonerated the captain who was blamed for one of the Navy’s worst WWII disasters

uss indianapolis
The Navy cruiser USS Indianapolis, sunk month before the end of World War II.

  • The sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the final weeks of World War II was one of the Navy’s worst disasters of the war.
  • For decades, the cruiser’s captain, Charles B. McVay III, was blamed for the loss, until a grade-school project set the record straight.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

In 1945, the USS Indianapolis completed its top secret mission of delivering atomic bomb components to Tinian Island in the Pacific Theater of World War II. The heavy cruiser was sunk on its way to join a task force near Okinawa.

Of the ship’s 1195 crew members, only 316 survived the sinking and the subsequent time adrift at sea in the middle of nowhere. Among the survivors was the captain of the Indianapolis, Charles B. McVay III.

McVay would be charged with negligence in the loss of the ship. Even though he was restored to active duty after his court-martial and retired a rear admiral, the guilt of the loss haunted him for the rest of his life. He committed suicide with his Navy revolver on his own front lawn with a toy sailor in his hand.

McVay did everything he could in the wake of the torpedoing of the Indianapolis. He sounded the alarm, giving the order to abandon ship and was one of the last men off. Many of the survivors of the sinking publicly stated he was not to blame for its loss. But this wasn’t enough for the family members of the ship’s crew, who hounded McVay year after year, blaming him for the loss of their sons.

USS Indianapolis
Survivors from the USS Indianapolis en route to a hospital on Peleilu.

The Navy was partly to blame. They didn’t warn Indianapolis that the submarine I-58 was operating along the area of the ship’s course to Okinawa. They also didn’t warn the ship to zigzag in its pattern to evade enemy submarines. When the Indianapolis radioed a distress signal, it was picked up by three Navy stations, who ignored the call because one was drunk, the other had a commander who didn’t want to be disturbed, and the last thought it was a trap.

Three and a half days later, the survivors were rescued from the open water, suffering from salt water poisoning, exposure, hypothermia, and the largest case of shark attacks ever recorded. It was truly a horrifying scene. The horror is what led to McVay’s court martial, one of very few commanders to face such a trial concerning the loss of a ship.

Even though the Japanese commander of I-58, the man who actually destroyed the Indianapolis, told the US Navy that standard Navy evasion techniques would not have worked – Indianapolis was doomed from the get-go. Even that didn’t satisfy McVay’s critics.

It wasn’t until sixth-grader Hunter Scott began a history project in school about the sinking of the Indianapolis.

He poured through official Navy documents until he found the evidence he needed to conclusively prove that McVay wasn’t responsible for the loss of his ship. His project caught the attention of then-Congressman Joe Scarborough and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who helped pass a Congressional resolution exonerating McVay. It was signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

Hunter Scott, the onetime sixth-grader and eternal friend to the crew of the Indianapolis, is now a naval aviator. He attended the University of North Carolina on a Navy ROTC scholarship and joined active duty in 2007. He even spoke at the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC.

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The world has changed, and now Biden needs to change how the US deals with Saudi Arabia

Joe Biden Saudi Arabia
Then-Vice President Joe Biden with Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, October 27, 2011.

  • President Joe Biden’s recalibration of US-Saudi relations is long-overdue.
  • Blowing up the relationship wouldn’t be wise, but the US does need to stop treating Saudi Arabia like it’s still the 20th century, writes Defense Priorities fellow Daniel DePetris.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The US relationship with Saudi Arabia is in a state of turbulence.

Persistent drone and missile attacks by the Houthis, including a March 7 strike on a major Saudi oil export facility at Ras Tanura, has led Washington to reiterate its “unwavering” commitment to the defense.

Yet at the same time, the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi underscores just how urgent a recalibration of US-Saudi relations really is.

The Biden administration has taken pains to thread the needle between accountability for the killing of a journalist and permanent US resident and the need to maintain a constructive relationship with the kingdom. In general, this is the correct approach. As despicable as bin Salman’s behavior has been since he rose from obscure prince to day-to-day ruler, the US blowing up the entire relationship would not be wise.

This, however, doesn’t mean the relationship isn’t in need of serious work. The US has too often based its engagement with Saudi Arabia as if the world was still in the 20th century.

President Joe Biden needs to reset the terms at an institutional level, getting away from an oil-for-security paradigm no longer as durable today as it was 30, 20, or even 10 years ago. Instituting a travel ban on problematic Saudis, slapping financial sanctions on certain Saudi entities and cutting Prince Mohammed off from Biden are surface-level gestures. What Washington needs is real reform.

Mohammed Bin Salman
Mohammed bin Salman, then Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, arrives at the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, Sept. 4, 2016.

Washington and Riyadh established their strategic relationship at the tail end of World War II, when US President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud struck a transactional arrangement that would come to be known colloquially as the oil-for-security scheme.

In return for the Saudis opening their taps and providing a reliable supply of crude oil into the market, the US would grant the kingdom the defense articles and military training needed to protect itself from external threats. The understanding proved to be a pragmatic and largely effective one for both countries, both of which were wary of the Soviet Union and concerned about what Soviet expansionism in the Middle East would mean for the world’s most valuable energy source.

For US officials at the time, having one of the world’s biggest oil producers in Washington’s corner was simply common-sense.

Times, however, have changed. The Soviet Union, America’s adversary for over 45 years, has been in the history books for nearly three decades. While fossil fuels remain vital for the global economy, the tremendous progress being made in green energy is giving the world, including the United States, an opportunity to diversify its energy sources and thereby lessen its dependence on crude oil.

As a consequence, Riyadh has lost some of its influence over geopolitics. In 1991, the US imported 1.8 million barrels of Saudi oil per day. According to the Energy Information Agency’s own data, that figure has gone down to 530,000 barrels per day – the lowest since 1985.

Just because the US is importing less Saudi oil, of course, doesn’t mean the kingdom’s oil reserves are not important. But what it does mean is that the old oil-for-security model that has dominated bilateral relations for so long is less relevant in 2021 than it was during the Cold War.

Back then, a rival superpower dictating Persian Gulf oil prices was at least a plausible scenario for US policymakers and defense planners. Nobody can seriously make the same argument today – Iran and Russia are far too weak militarily and economically to reach hegemonic status, and China doesn’t seem particularly interested in bogging itself down in the Middle East.

Riyadh Saudi Arabia

The Biden administration’s recalibration of US-Saudi relations is long-overdue.

The president’s decision last month to end offensive US military support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen was a big step in the right direction, distancing Washington from Riyadh’s reckless air campaign and sending King Salman and his favorite son a message that the US won’t automatically be at the beck and call of the kingdom – especially when the kingdom’s own actions are a big part of the problem.

But a recalibration will stall if the Biden administration thinks all it needs to do is reprimand Crown Prince Mohammed and put the brash heir in his place. And it won’t succeed at all if Washington neglects three critical points: 1) Saudi Arabia is not a formal US treaty ally, 2) US and Saudi interests are more likely to diverge than coalesce, and 3) What is good for the kingdom in the Middle East does necessarily correlate with what is good for the US.

Biden has a golden opportunity to rewrite the old, 75-year-old contract governing the US-Saudi relationship, one where the US approaches the kingdom like any authoritarian state with a terrible human rights record: skeptical and at arms-length, but ready to do business when US national security interests demand it.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for Newsweek.

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The Navy was able to deliver an F-35 engine to an aircraft carrier at sea for the first time

Navy aircraft carrier F-35 engine
Sailors load an F-35C Lightning II power module onto a CMV-22B Osprey aboard Navy nuclear aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, February 11, 2021.

  • The Navy conducted its first successful replenishment-at-sea with an F-35 power module in February, delivering it to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.
  • This capability improves the Navy’s carrier strike capability and allows the Marine Corps to provide its own close air support and inland strike capability.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

According to a recent story published in Naval News, for the first time, the power module for the F-35C Lightning II multirole combat aircraft has been delivered by a CMV-22B Osprey to an aircraft carrier at sea, the USS Carl Vinson.

The engine was an F-135 Power Module, which is common to all three variants of the F-35 aircraft.

To the casual observer, this may not seem like an event of much importance, but for the Navy and the Marine Corps that fly the plane, this is a very big deal.

Navy aircraft carrier F-35 engine
Sailors load an F-35C power module onto a CMV-22B Osprey aboard USS Carl Vinson, February 11, 2021.

It is said that when it comes to the art of war, amateurs talk about tactics while professionals talk about logistics. And the F-35 coming into naval service created some unique logistical challenges for the Navy and Marine Corps.

There are some 500 F-35s currently in service building to a peak strength of over 2,400. While the F-35 holds out the promise of incredible performance and combat capability, none of that will matter if these aircraft cannot be sustained while operating at sea.

One of the major problems was that the hot exhaust of the F-35’s engine tended to melt the flight decks of the ships they were landing on. The same problem existed with the V-22 Osprey and its engine nacelles when in the vertical position. The Navy solved that problem by making the decks more heat-resistant.

The F-35 also incorporates an automated parts system that tracks every component installed on this enormously complex aircraft to keep track of its performance and durability. This system has also been plagued with data-entry problems that are still being worked out.

Navy aircraft carrier F-35 engine
Sailors load an F-35C power module onto a CMV-22B Osprey aboard USS Carl Vinson, February 11, 2021.

This is in no way unique to the introduction of a new aircraft into the Navy or Air Force. You can plan very carefully to take all factors into account, but logging hours with the F-35 in the real world is necessary to find problems no one ever thought of. One of those problems for the F-35 was engine swaps.

The Lightning II uses the Pratt and Whitney F-135 Power Module designed to be unplugged and removed from the aircraft. It is then shipped as a single unit to a maintenance facility ashore to be overhauled and then returned to the squadrons as a spare.

Building a fleet of F-35s is pricey, but their construction cost isn’t the only cost involved. To keep these planes flying and fighting requires a very long and expensive logistics “tail” of spare parts and engines. This is why about 70% of the Navy’s weapons budget is just for the sustainment of the weapons it already has.

When it comes to the F-35C and its modular powerplant, the Navy needed to buy hundreds of spare engines that need to be replaced after a certain number of running hours are logged. The problem was how to get them out to the aircraft carriers that have Lightning squadrons.

The F-135 Power Module is a beast in terms of weight and size. It’s over 4,500 pounds and too large to fit into the cargo bay of the ancient C-2A Greyhounds. Further, you cannot just slam the F-35C’s engine onto the deck during a carrier landing and not expect it to be damaged. In contrast, the Osprey will be able to land vertically with a minimum of shock and vibration to the Power Module.

Navy aircraft carrier F-35 engine
Sailors load an F-35C engine module onto a CMV-22B Osprey aboard USS Carl Vinson, February 11, 2021.

Now here is why this rather mundane delivery of an F-35C engine to the Vinson matters so much: If the F-35C is fully sustainable at sea the Navy can roughly double its carrier strike capability and give the Marine Corps the ability to provide its own close air support and inland strike capability without needing a Carrier Strike Group to help them.

Using the fleet’s current amphibious landing ships with flight decks the Navy could put to sea with 24-25 aircraft carriers flying variants of the F-35, instead of just 12 supercarriers. And for Marines landing ashore, it would be its own F-35B in the VTOL variant providing not just close air support for troops on the beach but also a deep inland strike capability.

Studies have shown that smaller carriers are able to rearm and refuel their planes faster (called a sortie rate) than large carriers can. With the VTOL ability of the F-35B, it should be even faster as several could be spotted on the deck of an amphibious vessel at the same time. The F-35B will allow the Marines to replace the FA-18 Hornets, the AV8 Harriers, and EA-6 Prowlers currently in operation.

This ability to sustain the Lightning II at sea is also good news to allied navies, like the British and Japanese, that also fly the F-35 off their smaller carriers, as they will likely want this Osprey variant for their own use as well.

There are still other logistical problems to be worked out. For example, Navy ships and resupply vessels need larger electric motors and specialized skids to sling the power module during replenishment-at-sea operations, and an Osprey variant that can do in-flight refueling for the F-35 is badly needed.

But being able to fly 1,000 miles out to sea and gently land the power module for these aircraft brings us much closer to the game-changer that the Lightning II aircraft promised to be at its inception.

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Top House Democrat says the US should be ‘really careful about stumbling into a cold war with China’

House Armed Services Committee Adam Smith Thomas Waldhauser
Rep. Adam Smith, right, then ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, before a hearing, March 6, 2016.

  • US efforts to counter China militarily raise the risk of “stumbling into a cold war,” the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee says.
  • “We need to embrace containment and deterrence,” Rep. Adam Smith said last week.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith warned Friday that any notion of building a military force to rival China’s should be replaced with a strategy based on deterrence and dialogue in order to avoid war.

“I’m worried as we look at our sort of war planning,” Smith during a Brookings Institution-sponsored virtual discussion. “It runs the distinct risk of creating conflict where it doesn’t need to be. … We need to be really careful about stumbling into a cold war with China.”

The Democrat from Washington state called for a deterrence approach that stresses alliances, partnerships, diplomacy, and direct dialogue with China to prevent an armed conflict that experts have warned about for decades despite nothing close to war ever materializing.

The perceived threat of war with China, however, helps the armed services secure billions annually from Congress – and US weapons manufacturers to rake in the profits from arms programs that typically run years behind schedule and well over initial price estimates.

Speaking to the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday, US Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. Phil Davidson warned that in a decade, China can achieve overmatch capability and permanently reshape the region.

“Make no mistake about it, China seeks a new world,” Davidson said. “China has modernized its military more than any other nation on the planet through the course of this century.”

biden xi jinping china
Chinese President Xi Jinping with then-Vice President Joe Biden in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, December 4, 2013

Of course, US flag officers and hawkish lawmakers and industry executives have been making such claims for some time – while also boasting that the US military is the best equipped and most lethal in world history.

Davidson’s remarks follow a $27 billion wish list submitted to Congress this week. Lawmakers already approved some $6.8 billion as part of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a plan to modernize the capability of partners and allies in the region.

Smith agreed with the PDI’s goal of courting and making capable regional partners who could act to respond quickly to aggressive action by China.

“If we had quick-strike deterrent capability, that would impose a cost upon China and not drag us into a larger war,” he said. “That’s about alliances and partnerships.”

Smith said if partners and allies such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and India were ready to act in response to Chinese aggression, it would deter China from doing anything harmful in the first place.

Smith also called for dialogue, something former Trump Defense Secretary Mark Esper signaled when he announced his intent to travel to China to meet with his People’s Liberation Army counterpart.

The trip never happened after Esper was sacked following the November election.

US Navy China sailors
US Navy sailors in front of US and Chinese flags as US Navy destroyer USS Stethem arrives in Shanghai for an official visit, November 16, 2015.

When Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was asked at his only press conference (so far) if he saw any opening for cooperation with China, the new Pentagon leader acknowledged the possibility before taking a hard line.

“We are, in this department, are going to do everything possible to ensure that we have the right operational concepts, the right plans in place, and that we have resourced those plans with the right capabilities to present a credible deterrence to not only to China, or any other adversary, who would want to take us on,” he said.

Austin has signaled China will be the Defense Department’s pacing challenge, but he will wait up to four months before he decides how the Defense Department should change gears.

The former US Central Command leader, who spent much of his career focused on the Middle East, ordered a China Task Force to assess where the department currently stands before deciding his priorities.

In the meantime, Smith was happy to offer unsolicited advice.

“President Biden doesn’t have any illusions about how bad China is, but we have to work with them as a major factor in the world,” he said.

“We need to embrace containment and deterrence,” he added. “Be clear-eyed about China. Fine. All right. But understand that there are alternatives to dealing with that threat to all-out conflict.”

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How Canadian soldiers set 2 records for longest sniper kill during the first major battle in Afghanistan

CH-47 Chinook helicopter Operation Anaconda Afghanistan
CH-47 Chinook helicopters take off in the early morning in support of Operation Anaconda, March 4, 2002.

  • Within weeks of the September 11 attacks, US forces were in Afghanistan fighting Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts.
  • By March 2002, US special-operations forces, their international partners, and local allies set out on the first major battle of the war.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Nineteen years ago, a team of Canadian snipers set back-to-back world records for the longest sniper kill during one of the largest battles of the war in Afghanistan.

The US response to the September 11 terrorist attacks caught Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts by surprise. Instead pouring tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan’s harsh terrain, as the Soviets had done, the US military took the unconventional route.

A small number of US special operators and CIA paramilitary officers partnered with the Northern Alliance, a hodgepodge of anti-Taliban factions, and other groups. By late 2001 they had largely defeated Al Qaeda and the Taliban through a combination of air power and ground operations conducted by local fighters with guidance from Green Berets.

It was a perfect unconventional-warfare campaign and a ringing endorsement of the US and Coalition special-operations community, leading policymakers to rely more on commandos.

Operation Anaconda

anaconda afghanistan John Chapman

Following the Battle of Tora Bora, in which Delta Force and British Special Boat Service commandos almost caught Osama bin Laden in December 2001, the US military sought to find and destroy any Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants in the country.

Intelligence indicated a large combined Al Qaeda and Taliban force was in the Shahi Khot Valley in eastern Afghanistan. The US military decided to strike the roughly 1,000 terrorists and Taliban fighters there.

Surrounded by mountains, the Shahi Khot valley has a base altitude of 8,500 feet and is about 3 miles wide and 6 miles long. The peak of Takur Ghar mountain – which would end up playing a key part in the operation – looks down on the valley from a height of about 12,000 feet.

The plan was to trap the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the valley in an “anvil and hammer” operation.

Paratroopers from the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division would land in several different areas south of the valley, while an Afghan partner force led by Army Green Berets would block the valley’s north end. Meanwhile, several small special-operations teams would position themselves on the mountains surrounding the valley and provide intelligence updates and direct airstrikes against the enemy below.

All in all, Operation Anaconda, which took place during the first half of March 2002, involved about 2,000 troops, including Delta Force, SEAL Team 6, Australia’s and New Zealand’s Special Air Services, and Canadian commandos.

You broke the world record? Hold my beer

Army 101st Airborne soldiers Afghanistan
US Army 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) soldiers scan the ridge line for enemy forces during Operation Anaconda, March 4, 2002.

Canada, a steadfast US ally, was one of the first to commit troops to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban. By March 2002, there were about 1,000 Canadian troops in Afghanistan, but only a handful participated in Operation Anaconda.

Two three-man sniper teams from the 3rd Battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry were attached to the 101st Airborne for the operation’s duration.

In addition, operators from the Joint Task Force 2 (JTF-2), a Canadian special-operations unit similar to the US Army’s Delta Force, worked independently and directed airstrikes against the enemy.

The Canadian snipers hit the ground running, racking up multiple kills, but they truly distinguished themselves a few days into the operation, when Master Cpl. Arron Perry took out an Al Qaeda fighter who was acting as a forward observer.

Canadian soldiers Afghanistan Princess Patricia's Light Infantry
Soldiers from the 3rd Battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry search for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters north of Qualat, Afghanistan, July 2002.

Perry’s shot was from 2,310 meters, or 2,526 yards, breaking the record for the longest sniper kill. But glory was not his for long.

A few days later, Cpl. Rob Furlong broke that record with a 2,430-meter (2,657-yard) shot against an enemy machine-gunner.

By the end of Operation Anaconda, the Canadian snipers had made the difference, killing numerous enemy fighters and saving countless US lives. As a result, the five snipers received the US military’s Bronze Star Medal for Valor, the fourth-highest award for bravery under fire.

In the years of fighting that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the impressive records set in Shahi Khot Valley were broken, but the titles remain in Canadian hands. The current record is 3,540 meters (3,871 yards), set by JTF-2 commandos against ISIS fighters in Mosul, Iraq, in 2017.

Disaster on Takur Ghar

John Chapman Afghanistan Anaconda
US Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Chapman.

Operation Anaconda, however, didn’t end well for everyone.

Advance Force Operations teams from the elite Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) were the first to deploy to Shahi Khot Valley, sending precious information about enemy positions back to headquarters.

But as the battle progressed, the teams – composed of Delta Force, SEAL Team 6, and operators from other special-mission units – ran out of rations and batteries. Instead of resupplying the teams on the ground, JSOC sent in fresh personnel. However, the new teams weren’t acclimated to the brutal conditions and terrain. This would be fatal.

MAKO 30, a SEAL Team 6 element, decided, with approval the JSOC task force commander, to insert on top of Takur Ghar instead of landing on its slopes and making its way to the top.

During its approach, the MH-47 Chinook helicopter carrying MAKO 30 came under intense fire. Chief Petty Officer Neil Roberts fell from the ramp of the Chinook as it took evasive action.

Britt Slabinski Anaconda Takur Ghar
US Navy Master Chief Britt Slabinski on top of Takur Ghar after the battle.

The chopper had to make an emergency landing on the slopes before heading back to base. MAKO 30 was reinserted on Takur Ghar to save their teammate, who by that time had been killed and mutilated by Al Qaeda fighters after a valiant last stand.

Once reinserted, the SEALs were pinned down and forced to retreat with several wounded, leaving behind Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, an Air Force combat controller, who they thought had been killed. Chapman, however, was still alive and fought to the end, even charging the enemy positions by himself.

An Army Ranger quick reaction force went in to save MAKO 30 but came under fierce enemy fire. One Chinook carrying the Rangers crash-landed on the slopes of the mountain. The soldiers inside put up a brave fight but lost four men, while five were wounded. A second Ranger quick reaction force relieved them after several hours of battle.

The Battle of Takur Ghar yielded two Medal of Honors. Chapman and Master Chief Britt Slabinksi, MAKO 30’s team leader, received the military’s highest award for valor.

A CIA drone was over Takur Ghar as Chapman fought, making his the first Medal of Honor action ever caught on film.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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