A Pretty Prize

This is a portion of a post that had been in the works for some time, but was, as they say, overtaken by events. Today, France announced that it would sell the pair of Mistral-class helicopter carriers/C2 ships to…Egypt. This is one of the more intriguing – though less obvious – buyers, and it’s likely that there was no small amount of Russian lobbying behind the scenes in Paris to ensure that the ships ended up there. But let’s examine how – and why – a pair of Mistrals is headed to Cairo.

The former Vladivostok, now to be purchased by Egypt

While Moscow more or less acquiesced to the cancellation of its Mistral purchase, it continued to try and help select the ultimate buyer (perhaps acknowledging that even if the Mistrals can’t project Russian power directly, perhaps they still can through an not-unfriendly power):

Russian Arabic-language television channel Russia Today quoted presidency spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying that his country hopes France, now free to use the ships after settling its dues, would take Russian interests into account when reselling the warships to a third party.

According to the Wall Street Journal, an Egyptian purchase of the two Mistrals seems to have been be countenanced by Moscow. From the DefenseNews article was a suggestion that Russia might precondition French sale of the Mistrals to Egypt, specifically, on the purchase of additional Russian-made Ka-52 attack helicopters, but it’s unclear what legal grounds they might have had to compel this. Nevertheless, Egypt completed a transaction with Russia in late August, in which it will indeed receive 50 Ka-52s by the end of the decade. It now becomes apparent what this purchase was intended for.

However, given the Mistral class’s weakness at point defense and subsequent requirements for adequate escorts, Egypt might have a difficult go of it with its existing fleet.  While the Egyptian Navy is one of the largest in the world by sheer number of hulls, few are relatively modern. The French-built FREMM frigate Tahya Misr, delivered only this past June, is the mostly likely candidate to shepherd one of the Mistrals. However, the remainder of the Egyptian frigate force is of 1970s vintage and primarily consists of American surplus ships. It’s unclear which would be considered adequate to escort the other carrier.

Egypt is something of a natural for the Mistrals given their Russian fittings. The systems and electronics on the ships were done to Russian specifications, which could mean better interoperability with Egypt’s Russian- and Soviet-designed weapons systems (two frigates, almost a dozen missile boats, a handful of minesweepers). It might also be one of the few buyers who could and would be permitted to retain the Russian systems. Integration could prove tricky; however, Egypt has never been a slave to a single procurement source. Egypt sails ships of French, American, Chinese, Soviet, Russian, Spanish, and British origin, and in fact between the Russian fittings on the ships and recent purchases of French and Russian aircraft alike, Egypt would seem to be pursuing its own hybrid interests..

However, in this regard it might also represent a break with current Egyptian procurement trends, as future naval acquisitions on the books include French, German, and American ships. Furthermore, in terms of a command-and-control role, the backbone of the Egyptian Army is the M1A1 Abrams and F-16, and in large part its forces are equipped with American platforms and other western designs. Moscow’s enthusiasm for Egypt’s purchase of the Mistrals can probably be seen as an inroads into the Egyptian defense market, with the Russian-equipped ships a “teaser” introduction into a more integrated, comprehensive military system that would naturally call for the purchase of complementary platforms and systems from Russian industry. Whether Cairo is willing to humor Russia’s intentions remains an open question.

The role the flattops would play in Egyptian strategy and operations seems relatively limited, but it’s likely that one would operate primarily in the Mediterranean, while the other freely transits the Suez Canal (the Mistral‘s draught allows plenty of clearance) to patrol the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. The latter could portend a much more active role for Egypt on the Arabian Peninsula – while occasionally marred by disagreement, for the most part Egypt’s relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are solid, and represent a clear force multiplier for the Gulf states. Having a forward presence in the immediate area – particularly around Yemen – would allow Egypt to play a much more active role in ongoing operations there (unless, of course, it is already).

A Mediterranean Mistral might have been cause for alarm in Tel Aviv, but since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi seems unlikely to ruffle any feathers. If anything, a Mistral here would probably support Egyptian operations in Libya, or possibly to affect events on the ground in Syria – though operations to counter which side remains unclear.

Egyptian Air Base Locations

Cairo’s impetus for acquiring a pair of Mistrals is presumably less about their helicopter-carrying capabilities and more about command-and-control as well as the power projection that a flattop entails. Such capabilities might be especially helpful should Egypt plan to expand its involvement in the various regional anti-Daesh and anti-Houthi campaigns to include a significant ground force presence. In terms of the perpetual struggle for leadership roles in the region, the ability to project power reinforces Egypt’s status as one of the real players, a top-tier regional power that can throw its weight around.

But hey, if it also turns Egypt into an even bigger market for Russian arms, that’s another win, too.

Lines Drawn, Sides Chosen

One of the more interesting results of last night’s UNSC vote to authorize a no-fly zone over Libya was the voting pattern of the Council. More specifically, the abstentions.

Look at the countries that decided not to vote:

  • Brazil
  • China
  • Germany
  • India
  • Russia

Two things jump out: all four of the BRIC countries abstained from a vote, and of these five countries, the three which are not already members of the P5 are heavily discussed candidates for membership should the council expand. Do they too see themselves as a bloc? Or was it just coincidence?

So it’s interesting to try and ascertain where this reluctance comes from. One can just throw out some crude snapshots: Germany is wary of overseas military operations. China and Russia see any intervention as an ominous precedent and a threat to their own national sovereignty. India and Brazil don’t want the responsibility, perhaps, and see a vote on Resolution 1973 as a distinct voting record that could come back to haunt them (much like the conventional wisdom explaining why a United States senator would never be electable as president).

Also interesting are the military capabilities of these five countries. All, with the possible exception of Brazil, have formidable land armies, but lack a great deal of expeditionary capacity or any meaningful power projection. China has been making the greatest strides in this area with their naval armament program, but is still a long ways off from being able to physically support operations like a Libyan intervention. Much the same goes for Russia, even if the recent Mistral purchases were an attempt to provide new command-and-control capabilities that would make such a deployment easier.

Despite NATO’s series of capability commitments, developing a true airlift capacity remains stuck. Germany is the European leader of strategic lift, and yet still only operates the woefully outdated C-160. Its replacement, the A400M, has nearly three times the weight capacity – but has been delayed yet again and will not enter service until 2014 at the earliest. So even discounting moral reservations, Germany might have some legitimate tactical concerns about intervention in Libya.

Of course, to have to write something like this implies a great deal of cynicism on the part of the international community. The ‘clean voting record hypothesis’, in particular, is a rather damning indictment of why nothing gets done politically either in the international or domestic realm. No matter the reason, though, it appears as if the BRIC countries are their own power bloc, and they’re not going to help if they don’t want to. Which perhaps then begs the question of why the West has to intervene whenever a dictator starts murdering his own people.

(Of course, as I’m writing this, this article pops up in my Twitter feed.)

Treason Doesn’t Pay

…or so Vladimir Putin reminds us. As the ten accused Russian spies returned home, Putin said that their outing was a “betrayal,” and vowed that there would be “tough times for the traitors,” whose names the Kremlin is apparently well aware of. And he had a word of caution for those who would do the same:

Traitors always end badly. As a rule, they end up in the gutter as drunks or drug addicts.

Take note, would-be Benedict Arnolds or Vidkun Quislings! If you commit treason, you might as well be heating up black tar heroin in a spoon.

Via Bostonist.

Red Menace

One might be forgiven for thinking we’ve been trapped in some sort of time-warp-nexus lately. The Germans have bloodied the English yet again, Paul Krugman thinks we’re doomed to repeat the Long Depression, and now? Russian spies on our shores.

Yes, that’s right, 11 agents of the Kremlin were arrested in Yonkers, NY (where my alma mater is located), Boston (where I live), and northern Virginia (where thankfully I’ve never been to). But what exactly were they trying to do? Nothing less insidious than an “effort to plant Russian spies in the United States to gather information and recruit people able to infiltrate government policy-making circles.”

Great heavens! The Manchurian Candidate all over again. The Times is unclear on the specific motivations of the suspects, but does point out that while nine of the eleven were charged with money laundering, none were accused of stealing secrets (or presumably, influencing government policy). The real crime, though, was apparently “conspiring to act as agents of a foreign government without registering with the Justice Department.”

Ah, if only they’d bothered to let their local US Attorney they were attempting to influence the government! Then this could all have been resolved without such a fuss.

The Times has the original criminal complaints, which outline the high-tech tools of spycraft like LAPTOPS, AD HOC NETWORKS and MAC ADDRESSES. How dare the Russians outwit us again! Time for a crash program to develop a new, all-American SUPERLAPTOP and beat the Russkies at their game. It should be our goal to do this by the end of the decade.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Last week, Russian defense firm Concern Morinformsystem-Agat announced it had designed a clever new launch system for cruise missiles: the Club-K. Designed in the form of a standard shipping container, the missiles can then be launched from essentially anywhere: on a train, from a ship, from a tractor-trailer in the middle of nowhere. They use satellite guidance systems. And in case this seemed like yet another cute idea the Russians had, the system makes use of the 3M-54TE, 3M-54TE1, and the 3M-14TE missiles – all of which are tested and proven. The missiles come in two flavors: anti-ship and anti-ground.

This is naturally troubling on a number of levels, though actually not quite so many as one might imagine at first glance. The most immediate concern is that this particular style of camouflage allows a merchant ship to carry enough firepower to knock out an aircraft carrier – a continuation of asymmetric warfare at sea that Robert Gates has been acknowledging quite a bit recently. Asymmetric threats in general stand to gain the most from this weapon; the sheer banality that the missiles are hidden behind (the container looks so normal) is a clever disguise. Watching that video definitely provokes one of those “why didn’t I think of that?” moments.

Iran and Venezuela are already lining up to purchase the Club-K, and others will soon follow suit. Of course, Venezuela is a highly overrated security problem, but the threat posed by the Club-K is not existential; but one of harassment and annoyance. Iran, on the other hand, poses a clearer danger both itself and through intermediaries. And as Al Sahwa points out:

While it is true that al Qaeda won’t buy this weapon system from CM-AGAT out right, I think we have to recognize that nations like Iran have no qualms in providing groups like Hamas and Hezbollah weapons. The primary limiting factor for a terror organization utilizing this system is most likely the satellite navigation system. A non-Nation State organization would probably need access to a Nation State’s satellite infrastructure, although this is strictly a personal assumption.

However, seeing as some of the weakest links in American border security are the ports, we’re at huge risk there. Is it just me or does the Club-K look like it could also be a toy for eccentric billionaires?

Victory!

C Company, 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment marches in the Victory Day Parade in Red Square for the first time.

Saturday marked the 65th anniversary of V-E Day in most of Europe, but for Russia – being several time zones removed – Sunday, May 9th was V-E Day.

Throughout the Soviet era, a yearly military parade was held in Red Square to commemorate victory in the Great Patriotic War, but after the Soviet Union’s dissolution these parades were reduced in scope and grandeur. Vladimir Putin restored the Victory Day Parade to its former prominence in 2008, and this year’s parade was possibly the most epic yet.

For the first time, Allied and CIS forces also marched in the parade – an American company from the 18th Infantry Regiment, a British company from the Welsh Guards, a Polish battalion, a French aviation detachment, and troops from nine other countries – commemorating the global effort it took to rid the world of Hitler and Nazism.

French troops march in the Victory Day Parade in Red Square.

While there was certainly some resistance to Western troops marching in the holiest-of-holy Russian secular holidays, it mostly ascribed to the Communists and ultranationalists. Many veterans welcomed the other Allied troops:

“This parade unites all those who participated in the war,” said Iosif Efron, 85, who recalled that his Soviet division encountered American forces at the Elbe River in Germany at the end of World War II. “The invitation was absolutely proper. We fought together, and they helped us.

“Of course, without Russia, no one would have defeated Germany,” he added.

There are a ton of stunning (and not a little bit intimidating) photographs of the parade at Wiki Commons – including a real, live T-34! – and the BBC.

The Mask of the Bear: Soviet Deception in Operation Bagration

German columns advance past immobilized Russian tanks, July 1941.

From the moment the first Wehrmacht tank crossed the Soviet border in 1941 until the Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43, German victory in World War II seemed inevitable. The fighting on the Eastern Front took place on a scale never seen before or since, a colossal undertaking that consumed three-quarters of all combat forces in Europe, and cost the lives of over twenty-five million Soviet citizens.[1] The war could not have been won without the Soviet front, and even after the Red Army had successfully defended Moscow and Stalingrad, while holding out in besieged Leningrad, victory was far from certain.

The summer offensive of 1943, culminating in the Battle of Kursk—the largest tank battle ever fought by man—finally pushed the Germans onto the defensive. It was not until Operation Bagration, the 1944 summer offensive, that the German ability to conduct offensive operations was curtailed once and for all.

Operation Bagration won the war in the east, and that victory can be attributed to a practice at which the Red Army excelled—deception. The Soviet practice of maskirovka literally translates to ‘camouflage,’ but in the context of military doctrine has a wide variety of definitions covering everything from strategic disinformation to the effective  masking of an individual soldier’s foxhole. The official Soviet definition for maskirovka was:

The means of securing combat operations and the daily activities of forces; a complexity of measures, directed to mislead the enemy regarding the presence and disposition of forces, various military objectives, their condition, combat readiness and operations, and also the plans of the command … Maskirovka contributes to the achievement of surprise for the actions of forces, the preservation of combat readiness, and the increased survivability of objectives.[2]

The Soviets invented the art of maskirovka, and perfected it over the course of World War II. By the summer of 1944, it was second-nature, and the operational planning reflected this. In absolute secrecy, the Soviet High Command (Stavka) managed to position over 2.3 million men and the necessary supplies, all the while deceiving the Wehrmacht as to the actual objectives of the offensive.

It is no stretch to say that Operation Bagration would have unfolded far more poorly without the extensive deception operations, and as it marked an end to any chance of a German victory, the maskirovka so skillfully executed in the summer of 1944 in fact shortened World War II by a substantial amount.

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Russian Resilience

Andrei Loshak has an article out on the endemic corruption in Russia. IKEA’s attempts to open new stores there are met with sheer absurdity, the currency of the realm. The absurd is everywhere in a nation of circular logic and Catch-22s, where power is shut off to a store on the verge of opening for no reason at all. “Reason has limited possibilities, whereas the absurd knows no limits.” According to Loshak, society may have reached a breaking point:

When the absurd transmogrified into the lunatic, the system activated the command to self-destruct. The Castle, impregnable from outside, starts collapsing from inside. Two eagle heads tear into each other, only feathers fly. But, strangely enough, the stronger the entropy in the state, the faster everything disintegrates and the easier it becomes to breathe. As if there’s more air. I think that society has lost its fear: the people perceive the government’s inability to keep control of itself as a sign of weakness. Such a state cannot have enough strength for repression. The animal nips of the enraged system have woken people from their hypnosis. Fear and apathy have been replaced by rage.

The Russian state is trying to do too much where it can, and can’t do enough where it matters (see the recent Metro bombings). Between corruption, incompetence,  and contempt, Moscow has managed to alienate vast swathes of its citizens. Overreach – and for no apparent reason other than the power to do so – could end up a catalyst for decentralizing the Russian state.

The further a person is away from power, the better he is. I have seen this for myself in far away Ural villages built by lumberjacks before the Revolution. These villages’ link with civilisation was the only one-track railway in the country. Five years ago the authorities decided to tear down the villages and pull up the one-track railway. People who had been born and grown up in the forests were offered a flat in a high-rise block on the outskirts of the regional centre.

The government’s attempts to ouster the good citizens of the small village went from gentle cajoling to scorched-earth, smoke-’em-out tactics. But people may be starting to fight back. The state’s attempt to overmanage in the Urals is met by a particularly resilient community.

First the trains stopped going there, so food and pensions were not able to get through. There were people in the villages who hadn’t seen money for several years. They baked their bread, fed their cattle, shot game in the hunting season and wanted only one thing: for the state to leave them in peace.  When their electricity was turned off, they used locally improvised materials to build their own hydroelectric station on the river…

As a rule the spectacle of total degradation is depressing, but the people who lived in these autonomous forest villages were completely different. The men were strong – their children had grown up and they were determined to die in the place where they were born. In spite of the hard living conditions, their wives had somehow managed to remain neat and womanly.  Doors were not locked here, as there had been no thieving in these forests for many years.  People moved from one village to another in railcars, a cross between Minsk motorcycles and wagons, on a narrow gauge railway, a construction that was as exotic as it was dangerous.  I was told confidentially that one of the men was on probation. Representatives of the regional administration had come to take up the railway and he had fired a warning shot and then one at their feet … These people were full of dignity. You don’t often see people like that in the cities.

Unfortunately, you don’t see a lot of people like that anywhere. I’m not trying to call for revolution or mass uprising, nor do I even want to approach the Teabagger argument that the guvmint is a’comin’ to take away our guns and liberties and force us all into abortions and gay marriages. But nevertheless, something’s on the horizon, and as my new mantra goes: the future is coming, for better or for worse.