The specter of an accidental China-U. S. war

The Wall Street Journal reports: The last time America and China went to war—in Korea in 1950—they fought each other to a standstill.

Later that decade, as the Cold War ramped up, they came close to blows again; the Eisenhower administration repeatedly threatened “Red China” with nuclear devastation as tensions bubbled over Taiwan.

Today, given the astronomical stakes at play, many assume that armed conflict between the two giants is out of the question. They are each other’s largest trading partner. Military confrontation wouldn’t only threaten these huge flows but also student exchanges, scientific collaboration, joint technical projects and the myriad other ways in which the fates and fortunes of the world’s two largest economies and their peoples are inextricably linked.

Yet, as China flexes its muscles in the South China Sea and East China Sea, the risks of an inadvertent clash on the water or in the air are growing by the day.

A new RAND Corp study says that a Sino-U. S. war as a result of such a crisis “cannot be considered implausible.”

Violence could ignite quickly, the report warns. That is because each side has deployed precision-guided munitions, as well as cyber and space technologies, able to inflict devastating damage on the other’s military assets, including Chinese land-based missile batteries and American aircraft carriers. Thus they have a strong incentive to launch massive strikes first as part of a “use it or lose it” calculation. [Continue reading…]

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End the first-use policy for nuclear weapons

James E. Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former commander of the United States Strategic Command, and Bruce G. Blair, a former Minuteman launch officer, write: Throughout the nuclear age, presidents have allowed their senior commanders to plan for the first use of nuclear weapons. Contingency plans were drawn to initiate first strikes to repel an invasion of Europe by the Soviet Union, defeat China and North Korea, take out chemical and biological weapons and conduct other missions.

After the end of the Cold War, which coincided with revolutionary advances in our nonnuclear military capacities, the range of these missions steadily narrowed to the point where nuclear weapons today no longer serve any purpose beyond deterring the first use of such weapons by our adversaries. Our nonnuclear strength, including economic and diplomatic power, our alliances, our conventional and cyber weaponry and our technological advantages, constitute a global military juggernaut unmatched in history. The United States simply does not need nuclear weapons to defend its own and its allies’ vital interests, as long as our adversaries refrain from their use.

Using nuclear weapons first against Russia and China would endanger our and our allies’ very survival by encouraging full-scale retaliation. Any first use against lesser threats, such as countries or terrorist groups with chemical and biological weapons, would be gratuitous; there are alternative means of countering those threats. Such use against North Korea would be likely to result in the blanketing of Japan and possibly South Korea with deadly radioactive fallout.

But beyond reducing those dangers, ruling out first use would also bring myriad benefits. To start, it would reduce the risk of a first strike against us during global crises. Leaders of other countries would be calmed by the knowledge that the United States viewed its own weapons as deterrents to nuclear warfare, not as tools of aggression. [Continue reading…]

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Serving in the military doesn’t make you special

Rosa Brooks writes: A strange thing happened when I married a soldier. Whenever I mentioned my husband’s occupation, my subsequent words, whether controversial or trite, would be greeted with the wide eyes and reverential nods Americans now reflexively offer members of the military community. Sometimes I’d even get an awkward, earnest “Thank you for your service,” or “That must be so hard.”

Our worshipful national attitude toward the military has been on full display during this presidential campaign season, and both major parties have been eager to exploit it. The Republicans trotted out retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn to tell Americans they should vote for Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton. The Democrats countered with retired Marine Gen. John Allen, who urged Americans to do the opposite.

Then came the Gold Star family episode. Trump has spent the entire campaign season insulting one group after another – Women! Immigrants! Democrats! Muslims! African Americans! – without apparent consequence. But when he spoke slightingly about the parents of a Muslim American Army officer killed in Iraq, he instantly found himself on the receiving end of bipartisan public condemnation.

To GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan, Trump’s comments were “beyond the pale”; to former Republican contender Jeb Bush, they were “so incredibly disrespectful of a family that endured the ultimate sacrifice for our country.” A coalition of military support and advocacy groups signed an open letter calling on Trump to apologize, declaring, “Nothing is more sacred or honored than our Gold Star parents.” “We work in a sacred space,” explained one of the signatories. A Gold Star family is “a sacred family,” added another.

This is the language of theology, not civics. And while only someone with a heart of stone could belittle the grief of parents who have lost a child, our national sanctification of the military makes me deeply uneasy. [Continue reading…]

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45,000 ISIS fighters killed in past two years, says U.S. general

AFP reports: About 45,000 militants have been killed in Iraq and Syria since the US-led operation to defeat the ISIS group began two years ago, a top general said Wednesday.

“We estimate that over the past 11 months, we’ve killed about 25,000 enemy fighters. When you add that to the 20,000 estimated killed (previously), that’s 45,000 enemy (fighters) taken off the battlefield,” said Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, who commands the US-led coalition campaign against ISIS.

MacFarland said estimates for the overall remaining strength of ISIS vary from about 15,000 to 30,000 but said the jihadists are having increasing difficulties replenishing their ranks. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. Special Operations troops aiding Libyan forces in major battle against ISIS

The Washington Post reports: U.S. Special Operations forces are providing direct, on-the-ground support for the first time to fighters battling the Islamic State in Libya, U.S. and Libyan officials said, coordinating American airstrikes and providing intelligence information in an effort to oust the group from a militant stronghold.

The positioning of a small number of elite U.S. personnel, operating alongside British troops, in the coastal city of Sirte deepens the involvement of Western nations against the Islamic State’s most powerful affiliate.

U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a mission that has not been announced publicly, said the American troops were operating out of a joint operations center on the city’s outskirts and that their role was limited to supporting forces loyal to the country’s fragile unity government. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military intelligence contractors being hired to operate in Syria

The Daily Beast reports: Every day at 5 p.m., the Pentagon releases a list of that day’s contracts worth more than $7 million. On July 27, buried in the daily email was an eye-catching detail: Military contractors would be working inside Syria alongside the roughly 300 U.S. troops already deployed there.

This appears to be the first time the Pentagon has publicly acknowledged that private contractors are also playing a role in the fight against the so-called Islamic State inside Syria, and it’s one more signal that the U.S. military is deepening its involvement in the fate of the country.

The contract announcement said Six3 Intelligence Solutions — a private intelligence company recently acquired by CACI International — won a $10 million no-bid Army contract to provide “intelligence analysis services.” According to the Pentagon, the work will be completed over the next year in Germany, Italy and, most notably, Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Obama prepares to boost U.S. cyberwarfare capabilities

Reuters reports: The Obama administration is preparing to elevate the stature of the Pentagon’s Cyber Command, signaling more emphasis on developing cyber weapons to deter attacks, punish intruders into U.S. networks and tackle adversaries such as Islamic State, current and former officials told Reuters.

Under the plan being considered at the White House, the officials said, U.S. Cyber Command would become what the military calls a “unified command” equal to combat branches of the military such as the Central and Pacific Commands.

Cyber Command would be separated from the National Security Agency, a spy agency responsible for electronic eavesdropping, the officials said. That would give Cyber Command leaders a larger voice in arguing for the use of both offensive and defensive cyber tools in future conflicts. [Continue reading…]

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Rosa Brooks examines war’s expanding boundaries

In a review of Rosa Brooks’ new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, Harold Evans writes: Is Rosa Brooks psychic? Her book had gone to press before the killings of July 2016 broke upon us. Did she have a crystal ball to yield an image of the ambush in Dallas in which, from a sniper’s vantage point, a veteran of the ­Afghan war in body armor machine-gunned 12 policemen, killing five? Or of the military bomb squad robot that ended the terror without the police risking more lives? Or of the ambush in Baton Rouge by a veteran who shot three policemen to death? Or of another loner in Orlando, Fla., who was able to walk into a gun shop to buy what Army Special Ops calls a “Black Mamba”? That’s a Sig Sauer MCX assault rifle capable of firing 24 bullets in nine seconds, advertised by its makers as “an innovative weapon system built around a battle-proven core.” Forty-nine people died innovatively in the ­battle-proven core of the Pulse nightclub.

All these elements of the infiltration of military weapons and methods into American life are within the broad compass of Brooks’s perceptive book, “How Everything ­Became War and the Military Became Everything.” She has seen the paradoxical effects of the inflation of metaphor on law and institutions: how the police have become more like the military, and how soldiers, in nation-building efforts, have become more like police (and farmers); how police forces have bought hundreds of armored cars from the Pentagon for “the war on terror”; how “the war on drugs” has incarcerated more than one million Americans; how large cities now have SWAT (special weapons and tactics) teams. And she has seen how a quiet word in a drone command center can end the life of a young terror suspect thousands of miles away.

In impressive and often fascinating detail, she documents that the boundaries between war and peace have grown so hazy as to undermine hard-won ­global gains in human rights and the rule of law. [Continue reading…]

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Greenland melt could expose hazardous Cold War waste

Climate Central reports: When the U.S. military abandoned Camp Century, a complex of tunnels dug into the ice of northwest Greenland, in the mid-1960s, they left behind thousands of tons of waste, including hazardous radioactive and chemical materials. They expected the detritus would be safely entombed in the ice sheet for tens of thousands of years, buried ever deeper under accumulating layers of snow and ice.

But a new study suggests that because of warming temperatures that are driving substantial melting of the ice, that material could be exposed much, much sooner – possibly even by the end of this century – posing a threat to vulnerable local ecosystems.

These remnants of the Cold War are also an example of an unanticipated political issue that could arise because of the effects of climate change, particularly as countries seek to establish a presence in the Arctic as warming makes it increasingly accessible.

“We think it’s a nice case study for this kind of political tension stemming from climate change,” study author William Colgan, a glaciologist at York University in Toronto, said. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military opens formal investigation into deadly July airstrike in Syria

The Guardian reports: The US military has opened a formal investigation into a 19 July airstrike in northern Syria that local and outside observers consider the deadliest coalition attack on civilians in its two-year war against the Islamic State militant group.

The strike, in the village of Tokkhar, took place during a grueling battle for Manbij, a strategically critical Syrian city, that is now in its third month.

Army Col Christopher Garver, chief spokesman for the Baghdad-based US military command, said on Wednesday that the allegations surrounding the fateful strike are “credible enough” to warrant a formal investigation. Word of the investigation comes approximately a week before an internal deadline to launch an inquiry.

The civilian casualty death toll from the strike, remains under dispute.

The UK-based monitoring group Airwars has concluded that at least 74 civilians – now that a 14-year old girl has died of her wounds – have died, but Chris Woods, the group’s lead researcher, said the total could be as many as 203.

In contrast, Garver, the US military spokesman, said he had seen figures suggesting 10-15 civilians died in the attack. [Continue reading…]

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Civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes in Syria now ‘nearing Russian levels’

Charles Davies writes: somehow, someway, the news from Syria invariably manages to get worse, for those not yet fatigued by the routine of atrocity.

“It’s the worst week we’ve ever tracked,” Chris Woods, director of the monitoring group Airwars, told The Daily Beast. He was referring to a threat that emerged nearly two years ago: U.S. airstrikes, aimed at the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, but exacting a deadly toll on those stuck between ostensibly religious and ostensibly secular extremists.

Ahmad Mohammad, a 24-year-old Syrian activist, described it as a “massacre”: On July 19, over 90 civilians in the northern Syria village of Tokhar, just outside the town Manbij, were killed by suspected U.S. airstrikes as a U.S.-backed coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is fighting to reclaim the area along the Turkish border from the Islamic State.

When the uprising in Syria began in 2011, Mohammad said his goal was to spread “news of the revolution”; in 2016 his activism takes the form of “documenting abuses” — in this case, he sent along photos of women and children being buried in a mass grave, “human beings like all of us,” he said, whose only offense was living in a town occupied by terrorists from abroad.

In a statement, U.S. Central Command confirmed it carried out airstrikes in the area. “We are aware of reports alleging civilian casualties in the area,” it said. “If the information supporting the allegation is determined to be credible, we will then determine the next appropriate step.”

The CENTCOM-supported SDF, meanwhile, has dismissed reports of mass casualties in Manbij as “fabricated news” circulated by groups who “support terrorism,” according to a statement obtained by the Kurdish media network Rudaw.

Independent monitors and anti-ISIS activists on the ground, by contrast, insist that air support for the SDF has killed hundreds of innocents.

According to Airwars, the human beings dumped in that hole, along with corpses on streets and under rubble in and around Manbij that could not be afforded even a mass burial, bring the civilian death count from U.S.-led airstrikes in the area up to at least 190 since May 31.

Local activists claim the number is at least 368, and an activist with the Free Manbij Media Center told The Daily Beast the death toll on July 19 alone was “more than 150 people, mostly women and children” who were “killed while in their homes.”

The latest airstrikes have grabbed international headlines, but they are nothing new for Syrians. Since the U.S.-led coalition began bombing Syria, Airwars states there are credible reports of between 682 and 942 civilian deaths, meaning that nearly a third of what the military terms “collateral damage” has occurred in the last two months. It has gotten “so bad,” Woods said, “that we’re nearing Russian levels” (between 1,098 and 1,450 “likely” dead civilians since September 2015). The U.S. has thus far confirmed just 24 civilian deaths from its campaign in Syria. Like Russia, none of its partners — Australia, Bahrain, France, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom, among others — has admitted to any. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. nuclear weapons stored in Turkey aren’t safe anymore

Jeffrey Lewis writes: Among the candidates for most iconic image of this past weekend’s attempted coup in Turkey has to be the many videos of Turkish F-16s, hijacked by the mutineers, flying low over Istanbul and Ankara. Eventually, those planes seem to have bombed the parliament. There were rumors that they considered shooting down the plane of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

What’s clear is that mutineers managed to keep the F-16s in the air only because they were able to refuel them mid-flight using at least one tanker aircraft operated out of Incirlik Air Base. Eventually Turkish authorities closed the airspace over Incirlik and cut power to it. The next day, the security forces loyal to the government arrested the Turkish commander at the base. (The images of him being escorted away in handcuffs are in the contest to qualify as the weekend’s most iconic.)

In retrospect, it is understandable why the Turkish government closed the airspace over Incirlik, even if it did temporarily disrupt air operations against the Islamic State in Syria. But that is in retrospect. In the moment, it raised a disquieting thought. There are a few dozen U.S. B61 nuclear gravity bombs stored at Incirlik. Does it seem like a good idea to station American nuclear weapons at an air base commanded by someone who may have just helped bomb his own country’s parliament? [Continue reading…]

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