The T-14 Armata from a technical point of view

by Captain Stefan Bühler, graduate engineer (University of Applied Sciences), Explosive Ordnance Disposal Officer at the NBC-KAMIR Competence Center for the Swiss Armed Forces and Commander of Tank Squadron 12/1. This article was originally published on the OG Panzer blog site – my gratitude to the author for allowing its republication on For a German version of the article see here.

Twice, has taken a critical look at the new Russian combat tank, the T-14 Armata. In the first critique in the summer of 2015, Joseph Trevithick came to the conclusion that the basic design of the T-14 was rather antiquated, based on the limited public resources available at the time. He was not alone in this opinion at the time: Dave Majumdar, for example, noted in an article in National Interest that the Leopard 2 could successfully engage the T-14 if the right ammunition was used. With the publication of additional technical details, Sébastien Roblin critically analyzed the T-14 once again and came to a mixed conclusion. However, some findings were based on incomplete data resources – to this day, not all the technical details have been published. For this reason, and the fact that both authors are not engineers, we take into serious consideration the criticism offered to us that the reports on the T-14 on may be politically biased and may no longer be based on fully accurate facts. We are, therefore, extremely grateful to Captain Stefan Bühler for making his article available to us for a second publication, and for giving us a somewhat different perspective.

On February 9, 2018, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that two tank battalions and a mechanized battalion of the 1st Guards Armored Regiment in Moscow will be equipped with the new T-14 battle tanks and T-15 infantry fighting vehicles. The corresponding contract for the production of 100 vehicles was awarded to the industry in December 2017.

Since the first public display of the T-14 Armata at the Victory Parade in May 2015, the vehicle and its capabilities have been hotly debated in the western military press. Many of the articles published were extremely critical; this was, in part, due to the authors’ lack of technical expertise but, in most cases, quite obviously for political reasons. Every breakdown and alleged defect in the system, no matter how small, were used to criticize the technical concept as a whole. The following article aims to evaluate the T-14 from a technical point of view, based on the published data and pictures as well as the author’s personal impressions, and without political bias, if possible.

The T-14 has the same power output as the Leopard 2 or the M1 Abrams, however, with a combat weight of 48 tons, it is 20% lighter, resulting in a specific output of 31.3 hp/T (22.9 kW/T). In comparison its western counterparts with 24 hp/T (17.6 kW/T), this new vehicle is extremely agile. Its maximum range should be around 500 km (310 miles) with a comparable consumption and an estimated fuel tank size of 1,000 liters (265 gallons), similar to the western models.

In contrast to previous models T-64/T-72/T-80/T-90, the T-14 chassis consists of seven pairs of track rollers, whereof the two front rollers and the rear suspension can be actively controlled hydraulically (hydropneumatic chassis). This allows for manual or automatic adjustment of the chassis to the terrain, and thus enables significantly higher speeds on medium-heavy terrain compared to a chassis with conventional torsion bar suspension. However, experience shows that chassis with hydropneumatic suspension systems are much more technically demanding and less reliable than torsion bar suspension systems, which is why technical difficulties are still to be expected in this area. Notwithstanding, the T-14 prototype vehicles are already equipped with such a chassis (the author can be certain of this based on observations of the 2016 Victory Parade in Moscow), and it can be assumed that the Russian engineers have already gained some experience with this technology in the past three years.

The T-14’s tracks are narrower in the current version compared to the Leopard 2 or the M1 Abrams, however, due to the significantly lower combat weight, wide tracks are also not absolutely necessary: the specific ground pressure will be about the same compared to the western counterparts.

For understandable reasons, the Russians did not give exact values related to vehicle protection. However, a few estimates can be made on the basis of weight and geometry.

The following components contribute to the protection of the crew and the main groups of the T-14:

For mechanical reasons, the basic structure should have a thickness of at least 25 mm of armored steel with a hardness of 400 to 500 Brinell. Thus, the basic structure of the vehicle consists of a continuous minimum protection against armor piercing with 12.7 x 99 mm caliber ammunition (.50 Browning heavy machine gun), in some areas – depending on geometric arrangement – the basic structure is also expected to resist fire from the 14.5 x 114 mm API (Russian heavy machine gun) and older 20 mm caliber weapon systems.

For operational reasons, it is not be possible under normal circumstances for lighter vehicles such as infantry fighting vehicles to neutralize a main battle tank from the front (±60°). Most western infantry fighting vehicles have 30 x 173 mm machine guns as their main armament and shoot armour-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabots (APFSDS-T) with a maximum penetration capacity of 120 mm steel armor equivalents. A few exceptions, such as the Dutch CV9035 and the Swedish CV9040 respectively, have larger 35 or 40 mm caliber machine guns but the maximum penetration capacity of this ammunition should not exceed 160 mm of armored steel. The crew and ammunition compartments on the T-14 are likely to be protected frontally and laterally with a suitable dimension of composite armor.

For weight reasons, it can be assumed that the basic structure in the engine compartment has not been reinforced. However, the T-14 prototypes have a so-called cage armor around the engine compartment – this shuts off the electric ignition circuit on some antitank munitions, such as the widely used PG-7, upon impact, thus preventing them from being triggered. Since this type of protection system has no performance-reducing effect on most western anti-tank munitions (e.g. Panzerfaust or M72 LAW) – apart from the increased explosive distance – it can be assumed that the production version does not use the cage armor or that it will only be used adaptively in certain countries of operation.

In urban terrain, light anti-tank weapons (e.g. PG-7, Panzerfaust, M72 LAW), which are fired at short range at the side of the vehicle, are a major problem for a battle tank. By attaching reactive protection elements in the appropriate dimensions, the effect of shaped charges can be reduced by more than 80%. The Malachit reactive protection elements used in the T-14 are a logical further development of the previous Kontakt-5 and Relikt models, and should be correspondingly powerful. Like the Kontakt-5 technology, Malachit will also be able to significantly reduce the penetration rate of projectiles.

In terms of penetration performance, the biggest threats to a battle tank are the large-caliber projectiles from other battle tanks and modern anti-tank guided weapons.

The most modern western arrow projectiles (German 120 x 570 mm DM63 made of tungsten carbide, American 120 x 570 mm M829 made of depleted uranium) have a maximum penetration capacity of 750 mm armored steel equivalent; for anti-tank guided weapons, the maximum penetration rate is even between 1,200 mm (BGM-71 TOW, HOT 3, FGM-148 Javelin, Spike, 9K135 Kornet) and 1,400 mm (AGM-114 Hellfire).

Even with highly-developed passive and reactive protection technologies, this threat can be countered only to a limited extent – especially not with the estimated 48 ton combat weight of the T-14. Accordingly, the Afganit active protection system must be designed in such a way that – in combination with other technologies – it offers effective protection against both artillery projectiles and powerful antitank guided weapons (with tandem shaped charges).

The Afganit active protection system (Hard Kill).

The Afganit active protection system (Hard Kill).

It is currently very difficult to make a reliable statement about the performance of Afganit due to the scarce amount of data available. It is assumed that it contains both a hard-kill and a soft-kill system. This seems plausible, especially since the Russians have the appropriate operational experience in both areas with the Arena system (hard-kill) and the Shtora-1 system (soft-kill).

The Afganit system is comprised of the following components:

  • ten forward facing launchers arranged on the turret (hard-kill system);
  • two swiveling launchers, each with 12 tubes on the left and right in the front area of the turret (soft-kill system);
  • two fixed, upturned launchers with 12 tubes each in the rear area of the turret (soft-kill system);
  • two laser warning modules on the left and right side of the turret’s front;
  • two radar panels on the left and right side of the turret.

Threats are detected by laser warning modules (laser distance measurement or laser target illumination by the enemy) or by a radar with electronic beam deflection (measurement of the trajectory of incoming projectiles). According to various sources, the radar is based on the AESA radar technology of the new Suchoi T-50 fighter – this would make sense inasmuch as the unit price reduced by the larger procurement volume would ultimately benefit both projects.

In the area of soft-kill system performance, it must be assumed – also against the background of the Russian capabilities in electronic warfare that have been greatly expanded over the past ten years – that Afganit is significantly more powerful than the Shtora-1 developed in the 1980’s: a possible disturbance or deception of modern guided-weapon sensors by corresponding electro-optical or magnetic effectors is quite realistic from a technical point of view.

Furthermore, the four small launchers (two swiveling, two fixed, upturned) probably serve as smokescreens with multi-spectral smoke. Should this be the case, modern third or fourth generation anti-tank guided weapons with top-attack capability (including the FGM-148 Javelin) and sensor function of artillery (SMArt, BLU-108) could also be defended against, in contrast to Shtora-1.

Components of the Afganit active protection system.

Components of the Afganit active protection system.

The ten launchers on the turret are definitely part of the hard-kill system and, like their predecessors Drozd and Arena, are likely to fire a type of explosive and/or fragmentation grenade that damages or destroys explosive and shaped charge projectiles or anti-tank missiles and guided weapons before they hit the main armor. Due to the geometric arrangement of the launchers, a coverage of ±60° in the front area can be assumed.

Although it is technically unlikely that these countermeasures will damage or destroy a projectile made of tungsten carbide or depleted uranium. However, if the grenade is fired at the level of the control unit, this would lead to a pendulum of the penetrator and thus to a considerable reduction in power (30 – 50%). The necessary ignition of the grenade requires a data link between the fire control computer of the active protection system and the grenade itself. The fact that this is basically possible has already been proven in Western research projects.

However, all these protection systems – apart from the further developed technology – are not really new. What actually makes the T-14 unique from a technical point of view is the unmanned turret. This offers two distinctive advantages over a manned turret:

  • The crew compartment volume – and thus the volume requiring a high level of protection – is reduced by approximately 60%, which in turn leads to corresponding weight savings with the same level of protection for the crew.
  • The turret volume is also reduced: the turret surface is about 35% smaller, the front surface is about 15% smaller than the Leopard 2A6 or M1A2 Abrams. The first shot probability (without taking aiming errors into account) with the Leopard 2A6 and the most advance projectile DM63 available on the turret of a T-14 (partially covered position) at a distance of 3,000 m (9,842 feet) is approximately 25%. Or in other words, statistically speaking, four shots would be needed to land a hit.

Based on all these considerations, it must be assumed that the T-14 Armata offers the crew a higher overall level of protection than its western counterparts, despite its significantly lower combat weight.

The T-14 Armata turret (clearly visible are the launcher tubes on the turret, the two swiveling launcher units on the top of the turret, as well as the radar panels and laser warning modules on the front and side of the turret).

The T-14 Armata turret (clearly visible are the launcher tubes on the turret, the two swiveling launcher units on the top of the turret, as well as the radar panels and laser warning modules on the front and side of the turret).

Fire Power
The current T-14 prototypes are all equipped with a new 125 mm (2A82) smoothbore gun. It can be assumed that this new version has undergone an increase in performance compared to the 2A46M-2 of the T-90. Since Russian designers, like their western counterparts, are also bound to the laws of physics, the expected penetration performance can be predicted quite accurately: at an operating distance of 3,000 m (9,842 ft), it should be in the range of 800 mm armored steel and thus about 10% above the values of the 120 mm RH L55 of the Leopard 2A6 with the DM53/63 projectile. In the case of shaped charge projectiles, the penetration rate increases practically in proportion to the caliber, which is why the penetration values here are probably only about 5% higher compared to the 120 mm caliber shaped charge projectiles. The maximum operating distance for the projectiles should be around 5,000 m (16,404 ft), with an effective operating distance around 3,000 m (9,842 ft).

The new weapon will probably be able to fire all 125 mm projectiles already introduced and, like its predecessors, will have a guided missile complex which allows the firing of anti-tank guided weapons with operating distances of more than 5,000 m.

Breakthrough performance (y-axis) as a function of muzzle velocity (x-axis) and slenderness ratio for 105, 120 and 140 mm calibers, taking into account all interior, exterior, and end ballistic effects. (Walter Lanz and Willhelm Odermatt, “Penetration Limits of Conventional Large Caliber Anti Tank Guns/Kinetic Energy Projectiles“, 13th International Symposium on Ballistics, 1st-3rd June 1992).

Since the first presentation of the T-14, it has been repeatedly emphasized that the vehicle could also later be equipped with a 152 mm smoothbore gun. From a technical point of view this should be feasible, but the problem is different: a 152 mm projectile requires approximately 50% more space than a 125 mm projectile, which would reduce the ammunition capacity from 45 rounds (125 mm) to approximately 30 rounds (152 mm), which in turn has a negative effect on the autonomy of the system.

For secondary armament, the Russian designers have initially held to the proven system of a 12.7 mm anti-aircraft machine gun and a 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun. The announced optional 30 mm coaxial machine gun would probably be technically feasible without any problems, especially since the Russian tank builders already have decades of experience in this field (the BMP-3 introduced in 1987 also has a 30 mm coaxial machine gun in addition to the 100 mm main weapon).

The automatic loader should also pose no technical problems – Russian designers can look back on 50 years of development and application experience in this field (the first automatic loader EZ-10 was introduced in 1967 with the T-64A). The discussion in the West about the advantages and disadvantages of automatic loaders and three or four crew members is probably less technical than emotional: with the introduction of the T-64, the Russians have opted for this solution and have consequently adapted their training and deployment procedures accordingly, which is why a comparison with western main battle tanks (apart from the French AMX-56 Leclerc) makes only limited sense from the author’s point of view.

Command Capability
The crew are placed side by side in the front and are comprised of the driver (left), the gunner (middle), and the commander (right). A bulkhead separates the crew compartment from the weapons and ammunition compartment, another bulkhead separates the weapons and ammunition compartment from the engine compartment. The control of the weapon system and propulsion is exclusively electronic, so that the vehicle can be controlled remotely without any problems, even without a crew.

In cross section: in front, the strong armor; the compartment for the commander, the gunner, and the tank driver; the unmanned turret; the fuel tank; propulsion; and at the rear of the turret, additional space for ammunition and tools.

In cross section: in front, the strong armor; the compartment for the commander, the gunner, and the tank driver; the unmanned turret; the fuel tank; propulsion; and at the rear of the turret, additional space for ammunition and tools.

Driver, gunner, and commander each have two LCD monitors, which serve as an interface with the vehicle computer or fire control computer. The T-14 Armata fire control system consists of the following components:

  • electro-optical rifle scope with infrared camera and laser range finder;
  • electro-optical commander periscope with infrared camera and laser range finder;
  • stand-alone weapon station (12.7 mm) with infrared camera and laser range finder;
  • autonomous analogue TV rifle scope (emergency shooting);
  • six TV cameras on the turret for 360-degree observation;
  • millimeter wave radar (Afganit active protection system);
  • various sensors (e.g. wind, temperature, tilt);
  • fire control computer;
  • stabilizing electronics;
  • LCD monitors for the crew;
  • control panels and control handles for the crew.

Driver and commander each have three additional periscopes, while the gunner has only one periscope. The commander’s periscopes are most likely equipped with tip-visor buttons, which were introduced with the T-90MS and serve to swing the turret in the direction corresponding to the tip-visor button pressed.

The information and management system consists of a satellite navigation system (GLONASS) and a tactical command system. The interface with the fire control system via the vehicle computer essentially makes it possible to determine the coordinates of a spotted target and make them visible in real time to all vehicles and command posts integrated in the control system.

The discussion among experts now revolves mainly around the question of whether the commander lacks the necessary overview when sitting in the tank or whether TV cameras and electro-optical aiming devices can actually provide the same information as the optical aiming devices and observation equipment on the current generation of battle tanks. A look into the sky provides the (technical) answer: the pilot of an F-35 can look through the aircraft with his head-up display – a computer generates a virtual 3D world from the video signals from the cameras mounted all around, which is then faded into his optics depending on the pilot’s direction of vision. With such technology, as offered by the Israeli company ELBIT Systems under the name “Iron Vision” for use on armored vehicles, the commander of a T-14 could see even more than the commander of a battle tank with a manned turret. A completely different question in this case is the price: a pilot’s helmet for the F-35 costs about $400,000; there is no reliable information about the price of “Iron Vision” yet.

Finally, the question of vulnerability remains: compared to older optical systems, video cameras and electro-optical scopes are neither more nor less vulnerable to enemy fire or splintering. Optics are, and will remain, the Achilles’ heel of a battle tank, including the T-14.

The T-14 Armata seen at the International military-technical forum ARMY-2017 in August 2017 (Photo: Vitaly Kuzmin, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License).

The T-14 Armata seen at the International military-technical forum ARMY-2017 in August 2017 (Photo: Vitaly Kuzmin, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License).

Certainly, all data released by the Russians on the new tank must be critically examined. Notwithstanding: Russian engineers, with the appropriate political support from the Kremlin, have consistently implemented the concept of the unmanned turret battle tank; while in the West, desperate attempts were made to extend the life of battle tanks whose development dates back to the 1970’s with limited system upgrades.

The current version of the T-14 may still have a number of constructive deficits and teething problems, but one thing is certain: when the West presents the first prototype of a new generation of battle tanks in three to five years (a highly optimistic estimate), the Russians will already have several years of practical experience in this area – a backlog that cannot be compensated for so quickly even with the alleged technological superiority of Western industry. A look at the history of tank development shows that the Russians revolutionized tank construction several times – not because they were the first to have the idea, but because they were the first to have the courage to take a step forward.

• • •

Info-Box: Russian milestones in tank development

  • Although developed in the USA as early as the beginning of the 1920’s, and after the Americans showed no particular interest in it, the Soviet designers built and improved the Christie drive under licence and, from 1931, installed it as standard equipment in BT-series light tanks. The BT tanks were the fastest tanks at that time and the Christie drive was later successfully used for the T-34.
  • The T-34 is considered by many tank experts to be the most successful tank design of all times. The almost perfect balance of firepower, protection, and mobility made it technically superior to German tanks at the beginning of the war. The T-34 was also the first mass-produced tank with a diesel engine.
  • The T-55 was the first battle tank to be equipped with NBC protection.
  • The T-62 was the first battle tank with a smoothbore gun capable of firing penetrator projectiles.
  • The T-64 was the first battle tank with an automatic loader. With the T-64A version, a fire suppression system was installed for the first time in a battle tank, and the T-64B was equipped with the first composite armor (Combination K).
  • The T-72 is the most produced battle tank in the world. It was also the focus of western criticism, in particular because of the poor performance of the Iraqi T-72 against the American M1 Abrams in the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Although the different versions of the T-72 were used in numerous wars and conflicts, the Soviet vehicle versions never clashed with Western tank models – always the weaker export versions were involved in the fighting.
  • The Kontakt-5 reactive armor, which first appeared in 1985 on the T-80U, was able to reduce the penetration rate of projectiles by more than 30% compared to its predecessors. Western engineers were able to analyze the technique after the fall of the Berlin Wall and came to the conclusion that no western battle tank from that time would have been able to penetrate a Kontakt-5 reinforced armor with the first hit.
  • The T-90 was the first battle tank to be equipped with a soft-kill active protection system (Shtora-1) as standard.
  • The T-14 will probably be the first battle tank to be built with an unmanned turret as standard.

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The future of rising aspirations

Today is the slowest day of innovation you will ever experience again in the rest of your live. — Rob Nail, CEO and Associate founder of the Singularity University.

Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank, warns about the rising aspirations of the people all over the world. According to Rob Nail, by 2025 at the latest all 8 billion people on the planet will have access to broadband and smartphones. Only in Africa, the number of smartphones is going to triple, from around 200 million to 700 million from 2015 to 2020. Experience shows that at first the people are very happy about their new possibilities to link and interact with the rest of the world. However, over time, they are beginning to compare their standard of living with the one in highly developed countries. Even if that would motivate to change and improve the political, economic and social situation in their countries, most likely this will lead to frustration in the short-term – especially if people realize that they will probably never be able to reach the standard of living in highly developed countries. Such frustration about this obviously unfair situation will lead to a higher flow of economic refugees and certainly to more extremism and violence. Therefore, Kim thinks that it will be crucial for the future of rising aspirations to invest today in the educational system in the developing countries, so that today’s children are able to compete in the economy in the future.

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Challenges and opportunities posed by global warming in the Arctic

by Patrick Truffer (originally published in German). He has been working in the Swiss Armed Forces for more than 15 years, holds a bachelor’s degree in public affairs from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH Zurich), and a master’s degree in international relations from the Free University of Berlin.

Wrongly, there is little talk in Western and Central European countries of the changes in the Arctic. The term “Global Arctic”, introduced at the Arctic Circle meeting in 2014, underlines the magnitude of the changes in the Arctic. According to Konrad Steffen, Director of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, the melting ice sheet in Greenland has caused sea levels to rise by an average of 1 mm per year over the last 40 years; by 2100 they are expected to rise by another 1 m in total. This will lead to long-term changes to coastal regions around the world.

The changes in the Arctic do not only have a global impact: distant events, such as increasing carbon dioxide emissions, are also causing far-reaching changes in the Arctic. This interplay can be seen not only in the ecological sphere, but also in the economic, geopolitical, social and cultural realms. This makes supra-regional and interdisciplinary cooperation all the more important in order to meet the current and future challenges linked to the Arctic region. (Lassi Heininen und Matthias Finger, “The ‘Global Arctic’ as a New Geopolitical Context and Method“, Journal of Borderlands Studies, 04.12.2017).

This role falls to the Arctic Council, which is an intergovernmental forum with a strong scientific focus. The objectives of the Arctic Council are to promote cooperation, coordination and interaction between Arctic states relating to typical Arctic issues, while keeping indigenous communities involved. The Arctic states listed in the 1996 Ottawa Declaration, which form the core of the Arctic Council, are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the USA. In addition, 13 states, 13 international organisations and 13 non-governmental organisations currently have observer status.

Not only did Finland take up the presidency at the 10th meeting of the Arctic Council in May 2017: Switzerland was also officially admitted to the circle of states with observer status. The Arctic strategy of the three Nordic countries was considered in the context of “The Arctic – closer than you think” organised by “foraus – Forum Foreign Policy” in cooperation with the Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian embassies and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. Finally, the question remained as to how Switzerland could contribute as profitably as possible, as an observer in the Arctic Council.

"The Arctic – closer than you think" -- From left to right: Host Markus Mugglin, the Swedish Ambassador Björn Lyrvall, the Norwegian Ambassador Anniken Krutnes, the Finnish Ambassador Aleksi Härkönen and the Swiss Ambassador Stefan Flückiger.

“The Arctic – closer than you think” — From left to right: Host Markus Mugglin, the Swedish Ambassador Björn Lyrvall, the Norwegian Ambassador Anniken Krutnes, the Finnish Ambassador Aleksi Härkönen and the Swiss Ambassador Stefan Flückiger.

Finland’s strategy for the Arctic region was last adopted in October 2012 and slightly updated in 2016 for its Arctic Council presidency. It is based on four pillars:

  • Finland is an Arctic state. A quarter of Finland’s territory lies north of the Arctic Circle. A third of the population who live north of the 60th degree of latitude have Finnish citizenship – including some of the Samis, the only indigenous ethnic group within the EU. It is therefore important for Finland that the Arctic remains a stable and safe area.
  • Finland has a great deal of expertise on Arctic matters. The Finnish government’s aim is to understand the changes in the Arctic, to adapt to them or even to take advantage of them. However, Finland does not only want to take a leading position in Arctic research: it also wants to use Arctic expertise for economic purposes, in a responsible manner.
  • Finland is committed to sustainable development and the sustainable use of natural resources in the Arctic region.
  • Finland encourages international cooperation in the Arctic region.

The Finnish Ambassador and Chairman of the Arctic Council, Aleksi Härkönen, emphasised good cooperation in the Arctic Council, although he is concerned about further long-term cooperation due to the negative trend in international relations. International relations are particularly burdened by global changes in power politics and geopolitical competition between the major powers. It therefore seems to be to the Arctic Council’s advantage that it does not deal with security policy issues (cf. Christoph Humrich, “Sicherheitspolitik im Arktischen Rat? Lieber Nicht!“, Sicherheit & Frieden 33, Nr. 3 (2015): 23–29).

Good cooperation in the Arctic Council is in everyone’s interest, because climate change will lead to fundamental changes in the Arctic region, which will affect all the Arctic states. New sea routes and newly available resources are to be used in a responsible manner. The aim is to develop the region economically while at the same time protecting the environment and the habitat of the indigenous population. This is why Finland intends to focus on mitigating the consequences of climate change and adapting to them, as well as using the Arctic region sustainably during its presidency, which runs until 2019.

With regard to the use of new sea routes, in February the Arctic Council organised an international conference on the harmonised implementation of the “Polar Code“, which the International Maritime Organisation brought into force in early 2017 for ships navigating the two polar regions. Among other things, the Arctic Council runs a forum for the exemplary conduct of Arctic shipping, ran a staff exercise in Finland in March on combating an oil disaster in the Arctic Sea, organises a congress on Arctic biodiversity in October of this year and arranges a meeting of the environment ministers of all Arctic states (Aleksi Härkönen, “A Look Ahead: The Arctic Council in 2018“, Arctic Council, 09.02.2018).

Finland is not alone in its strategy for the Arctic region. Norway and Sweden have defined very similar strategies. The Norwegian Ambassador for Arctic and Antarctic Affairs, Anniken Krutnes, recalled that the Arctic is a prosperous, stable and peaceful region. The Arctic is not just plains of ice and snow. Different regions can take on different shapes, and can be clothed in green during the summer. However, climate change will affect all these different regions. The Arctic Council is an important institution for ensuring prosperity, stability, peace and sustainable economic usage in the region. Simpler access to natural resources should not be allowed to lead to a mining contest. In fishing, care is already being taken that fish stocks in the Arctic region are only used to the extent that they can regenerate, on the basis of scientific data. Norway has a strong interest in the economic development of the region, as half of its land mass and around 10% of Norway’s population is located in the Arctic region.

The Swedish Ambassador for Arctic Affairs, Björn Lyrvall, also emphasised the importance of the Arctic Council. Regardless of intergovernmental relations in other policy areas, there would be consensus in the Arctic Council on the main points and priorities, he said. Accordingly he also highlighted the opportunities associated with global warming: access to resources and the Northeast Passage offering a shorter, more economical and safer link to East Asia than the standard route through the Suez Canal today.

Summer in East Greenland (Photo: Mariusz Kluzniak / flickr).

Summer in East Greenland (Photo: Mariusz Kluzniak / flickr).

As a result, the points and strategies of the three Nordic ambassadors coincide. Of course, global warming is a challenge, but the opportunities that result from it must be seized, they say. This view seems to be a little too rosy: the ambassadors did not address in detail the challenges for coastal regions triggered by rising sea levels and the challenges for the indigenous population due to the change in lifestyle caused by global warming. In particular, the extraction of mineral resources could have a negative impact on the region’s environment and population. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 13% of untapped oil resources and 30% of untapped natural gas resources are to be found in the Arctic region. The sustainable, environmentally friendly extraction of these resources borders on wishful thinking. This is why Anna Stünzi, co-director of the Environment, Energy & Transport Programme at “foraus – Forum Foreign Policy”, considered in the discussion that it would be better for the sustainable, environmentally friendly development of the Arctic region if these mineral resources were not mined. However, the Norwegian ambassador’s reaction clearly showed that Norway does not want to do without such an economic opportunity, if only to offer the Norwegian population in this region the best possible positive economic prospects for the future. On the contrary, Norway’s Statoil, 67% of the shares in which are owned by the state, is already mining natural gas in the Arctic region and operates Europe’s largest liquefied natural gas processing plant in Hammerfest. In addition, the Norwegian Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani has a small-scale coal mining operation in Spitsbergen. The Finnish strategy also clearly shows that Finland wants to make economic use of resources in the Arctic.

Natural gas processing plant on the island of Melkøya near Hammerfest.

Natural gas processing plant on the island of Melkøya near Hammerfest.

As an observer in the Arctic Council, Switzerland could play a role in protecting the environment and the way of life of the indigenous population. Switzerland’s Arctic strategy does not seem to have been formulated yet – this was the impression given by Swiss Ambassador Stefan Flückiger, Head of Bilateral Economic Relations at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs of the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research. He merely underlined the importance of observer status with regard to joint research efforts. The Swiss Alps have much in common with the Arctic, he said. During the four-year campaign to obtain observer status in the Arctic Council, Switzerland was praised as a “vertical Arctic nation”. Switzerland has been active in the Arctic for over 100 years and is up there with the best in terms of research (Tina Herren, “Beobachter im Arktischen Rat – ‘Wir haben ähnliche Probleme wie die Arktis’“, Interview with Stefan Flückiger, Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen (SRF), 12.05.2017). The Swiss Polar Institute was founded in 2016 to further promote research in this area. For its part, the Arctic Council supports 10 research projects in the Arctic each year. In terms of research, Switzerland can therefore not only benefit a lot from its observer status – it can also offer a lot in return. Nevertheless, it would be a wasted opportunity if Switzerland, as an observer in the Arctic Council, were to confine itself exclusively to research topics.

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The Middle East in Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons Capabilities

by Israel Rafalovich. He is a journalist based in Brussel, who has 50 years of experience including international postings in Tel-Aviv, Brussels, Germany and Washington,DC

The Middle East is likely to face more instability in the near future and the incentives for maintaining or acquiring nuclear weapons are likely to increase. In this case, Middle East conflicts could easily escalate into nuclear standoffs in a region bereft of tempering international bodies or adequate mechanisms for conflict resolution. A factor that looms large behind Middle East aspirations for nuclear weapons is power and influence in regional and international politics.

Arab states have long been angered by both the international community’s failure to sanction Israel over its covert nuclear weapons programme and by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which they see as cementing the primacy of the original five nuclear armed nations in international affairs.

Well, things are changing: Over the years, it has become more difficult for the United States to bring its power of deterrence to bear in the Middle East. This unique dynamic and political climate provides the Arab countries with unprecedented regional legitimacy to pursue a robust nuclear programme. A number of states in the Middle East have taken lately to set up and advance civilian nuclear power programmes possibly as means for obtaining the capability to manufacture nuclear arms in the future. While every country has stated that it has no plans to purchase nuclear weapons capabilities, the fact is that once a country has acquired these capabilities — under certain conditions — it could initiate a nuclear weapons programme. Civilian nuclear programmes can facilitate illicit procurement and provide technology and expertise to support a clandestine weapons programme.

States in the Middle East seeking civil nuclear programmes are likely to play off of the Russian, Chinese and European nuclear interests in a bid to bolster their power vis-a-vis primary ally the United States. Motivated by political and economic power-based interests Russia seems to be the chief contact in this field. Its arms and technology deals in the region have contributed towards renewed rise in the flow of highly sophisticated and strategically important technology to the Middle East.

Well, who is who in this emerging nuclear Middle East club?

Algeria’s nuclear history began before it gained its independence. France conducted its first nuclear test (Gerboise Bleue) on February 13, 1960 near Reggane, in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Algeria has one of the best and most developed nuclear complexes of the whole Arab world. As early as 1974, it was making grandiose plans for a future nuclear energy programme designed to save gas and oil exports. Since the late 1980s Algeria has had a significant nuclear programme, which includes four now safeguarded nuclear facilities at different sites.

The NUR research reactor, is located at the Draria nuclear complex, about 20 km east of Algiers. It was constructed by Argentina. The 1 MWt pool-type-light-water reactor went on line in 1989. Its fuel, twenty percent Low Enriched Uranium (LEU), was provided by Argentina. It is officially used for research and the production of isotopes.

The Es Salam research reactor is located in Ain Oussera, in the Sahara Desert, 140 km south of Algiers. It is a 15 MWt heavy-water moderated reactor and was built following the signing of a nuclear cooperation agreement with China. In 1991 China stated that under this agreement, it had also delivered 11 metric tonnes of heavy water and 216 fuel moduls totalling 909 kg of three percent LEU (Fitzpatrick, “Nuclear Capabilities in the Middle East“, p. 10). The site also hosts various facilities, including an isotope production plant, hot cell laboratories and waste-storage tanks.

In Paris people examine the bonus pages of the newspaper covering the French nuclear tests in Algeria.

In Paris people examine the bonus pages of the newspaper covering the French nuclear tests in Algeria.

Algeria also has significant Uranium deposits, about 26,000 tonnes in Targu shield (Nuclear Energy Agency, International Atomic Energy Agency, and International Atomic Energy Agency, “Uranium 2016: Resources, Production and Demand“, 2016). In common with Morocco, it has considerable amounts of phosphate ore from which Uranium is being recovered.

However, Algeria is a potential proliferating country. The proliferation concerns stem from several factors. The Es Salam complex, which is fairly large and well protected for research facility, is of a type that would potentially allow for production of weapons grade Plutonium. According to European intelligence sources, a heavy-walled building near the reactor appeared to have been intended to be full scale reprocessing plant. The size of the cooling towers exceeded the requirements of a 15 MWt reactor and would be more with a 25 MWT or 60 MWt reactor. Estimates regarding the quantity of Plutonium that could be generated by the reactor at 15 MWt vary from between 1-5 kg a year. (Fitzpatrick, “Nuclear Capabilities in the Middle East“, p. 11).

Egypt, has established a significant research infrastructure that is capable of exploring most aspects of nuclear science and technology. Most of the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority activities are carried out by scientists at two research centers: The Hot Laboratory and Waste Management Center and the Nuclear Research Center which hosts the Argentine supplied 22 MWt ETTR-2 light water research reactor, a fuel manufacturing plant, a hot cell complex and a waste management facility at Inshas.

The hot cell in Inshas are the only known facilities in Egypt that could be used to separate weapon usable Plutonium from irradiated reactor fuel. Furthermore, it has facilities and equipment necessary for fuel separation. There is to point out that spent fuel accumulated by the ETTR-2 reactor over ten years of operation is likely to be equivalent to eight to ten weapon worth of Plutonium reprocessed (see also Mark Fitzpatrick, “Nuclear Capabilities in the Middle East“, 06.-07.07.2011, p. 12).

Already in 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egypt President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi signed an agreement for Russia to build a nuclear power plant in Egypt.

Already in 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egypt President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi signed an agreement for Russia to build a nuclear power plant in Egypt.

On January 2005, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found evidence that Egypt had conducted nuclear experiments that could be used to develop a nuclear weapon. Particles of activities and fission products were discovered near a nuclear facility, which could be indicating work on Plutonium separation (Tariq Khaitous, “Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s Policies toward Iran’s Nuclear Program“, Nuclear Threat Initiative, 01.12.2007). Egypt was reported to have produced several kilograms of Uranium metal and Uranium hexafluoride gas. While the experiments occurred mainly in the 1980s and 1990s, there were indications that some were carried out as recently as 2003. The projects themselves were not illegal, but the failure to make the declarations raised concerns about Egypt’s intentions. (Director General of the IAEA, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Arab Republic of Egypt“, IAEA, 14.02.2005). Until now, Egypt has not renounced its decision not to pursue nuclear weapons following the peace treaty with Israel in 1979 (see also Kurt M. Campbell, Robert J. Einhorn, and Mitchell B. Reiss, “The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices“, Brookings Institution Press, 2005, p. 43-83).

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman promised to contribute to the revival of the long dormant Egyptian programme. Politically, Egypt has never come to terms with Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons; so, a nuclear Egypt remains on the table. Although Egypt regularly show’s strong commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and to a nuclear free Middle East, European diplomats in the Middle East said that Egypt might be considering building a break out capability. Egypt’s Nuclear Material Authority has been conducting work to extract Uranium ore concentrate from phosphoric acid derived from El-Shaiya phosphate ore. According to European intelligence sources Egypt has a semi-pilot Uranium extraction plant, to separate Uranium from phosphoric acid. If Egypt continues to perfect methods to recover Uranium from phosphoric acid, it will secure a steady domestic production of Uranium.

Reactor construction operation and management have also been the focus of the Egyptians and could be intensified in the future after the recent political decision regarding the construction of a nuclear power reactor. On December 2017, a final contract to start work constructing Egypt’s first nuclear power plant was signed in Cairo during a meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The power plant, which will contain four VVER-1200 reactors, will be built in El Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast. The site is deemed suitable for eight reactors. Rosatom will supply nuclear fuel throughout the plants entire life time. Rosatom will also train personnel and will assist its Egyptian partners in operation and maintenance during the first ten years of the plants operation. The first unit is to get online in 2026.

Saudi Arabia
Although, Saudi Arabia’s nuclear programme is in its infancy, the Kingdom has plans to construct 16 nuclear power plants over the next twenty years at a cost of more than 80 billion dollars. In January 2016, Saudi Arabia signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China for the construction of High-Temperature-Gas-cooled reactors. In August 2017 the two states signed two further Memorandums of Understanding, one to explore and assess uranium and thorium resources in Saudi Arabia and another to develop water desalination projects using gas-cooled nuclear reactors (“Saudi Arabia Signs Cooperation Deals with China on Nuclear Energy“, Reuters, 25.08.2017).

Nevertheless, in October 2017, the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy signed with Rosatom a “programme of cooperation” for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The plan is to cooperate in small and medium-size reactors which can be used both for power generation and desalination of sea water. Rosatom will also be training Saudi personnel for the national nuclear programme and in the development of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear energy infrastructure. According to Rosatom, they will also look into the prospects of establishing a center for nuclear science and technology in Saudi Arabia based on a Russian-design research reactor.

At the same time, according to informed sources in Washington, the U.S. nuclear industry is pushing to restart talks with Saudi Arabia on an agreement to help the Kingdom develop nuclear energy. Under Article 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act, a peaceful cooperation agreement is required for the transfer of nuclear materials, technology and equipment. It would deprive Saudi Arabia of the possibility of one day enriching Uranium. The Kingdom refuses to sign up to any such agreement with the United States. They want to secure enrichment if down the line they want to do it (see also Kingston Reif, Daryl G. Kimball, and Kelsey Davenport, “The Risks of Nuclear Cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the Role of Congress“, Arms Control Association, 5 April 2018).

Saudi Arabia’s interest in nuclear technology, is coming at a time of heighten tension in the Gulf. It seems to underline the Saudi intention to seek some type of deterrent against future Israeli and Iranian weapon capabilities. These nuclear power projects would allow Saudi Arabia to develop a nuclear infrastructure and scientific expertise under NPT rules. Although, not by itself a gateway to nuclear weapons, this could be a long-term security hedge.

In the past Saudi Arabia has been the subject of speculation regarding nuclear weapons ambitions. “[A]mong the charges levelled at it have been that it possesses undeclared nuclear facilities; that it sought or may seek a nuclear security guarantee from a country [(Pakistan)] other than the United States in return for energy supplies; and that it has attempted or planned for the outright purchase of a nuclear weapon and/or delivery system from another state.” (Mark Fitzpatrick, “Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran“, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008, p 42). It has been believed that the Saudi’s bankrolled Pakistan’s nuclear programme in the 1970s and ’80s and now want some reciprocity in the shape of ready-made nuclear weapons, paid for by massive financial aid to Islamabad (Mark Urban, “Saudi Nuclear Weapons ‘on Order’ from Pakistan“, BBC News, 06.11.2013).

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi King Salman listen national anthems during their meeting in Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. It was the first ever visit by a Saudi monarch to Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi King Salman listen national anthems during their meeting in Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. It was the first ever visit by a Saudi monarch to Russia.

Should Turkey decide to establish its own deterrent, it would do so with the advantage of already having in place a well established nuclear research agency, the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority (TAEK). Furthermore, preliminary work has begun on civilian nuclear energy programme, that appears to move ahead, thereby expanding Turkey’s nuclear expertise.

The Turks have a lingering skepticism about NATO guarantees, which they not feel were forthcoming. Confidence in American leadership remains low. A hardening EU mood against Turkish accession is another reason to growing alienation from the West, which Turkey sees as a reason to consider its own deterrent.

The ITU TRIGA Mark-II Training and Research Reactor at the Istanbul Technical University.

The ITU TRIGA Mark-II Training and Research Reactor at the Istanbul Technical University.

Turkey has a substantial nuclear infrastructure run by the TAEK. Four research centers and laboratories have been established within government facilities and universities and the most important is Çekmece Nuclear Research and Training Center located in Istanbul.

The ITU-TRR research reactor, is a 250 KWT TRIGA Mark-II light water reactor. The reactor is operated by the Institute for Nuclear Energy and located at the Istanbul Technical University. The other research reactor is the TR-2 5 MWt reactor.

On December 2017, Turkey has formally launched the construction of its first nuclear plant at Akkuyu following the issuance of a limited construction permit. The project is based on an intergovernmental agreement signed between Russia and Turkey in May 2010. JSC Akkuyu Nuklear, the Russian-owned company responsible for the project, expects to receive a construction permit in March. This will be the official start of the Akkuyu plant’s construction. The plant will have an installed capacity of 4,800 MWe and will have VVER-1200 reactor. Akkuyu nuclear power plant will be in operation for at least sixty years.

For now, Turkey does not have the ability to produce significant quantities of fissile material usable in a nuclear weapons programme. The TAEK has already begun to search for Uranium deposits in Turkey in order to avoid relying on imported Uranium to support the nuclear energy programme. Turkey is estimated to have just over 9,200 tonnes of Uranium in reserves but there is disagreement over whether this will be sufficient (Nuclear Energy Agency, International Atomic Energy Agency, and International Atomic Energy Agency, “Uranium 2016: Resources, Production and Demand“, 2016).

European intelligence sources said that Turkey has the technical capabilities to manufacture many of the components for gas-centrifuge Uranium enrichment programme, although, until now, Turkey has not given any hint that it has the intention of doing so.

The risk is substantial that Turkey will seek advanced nuclear capabilities in order to have comparable power to Iran under ambitious nuclear energy plans laid by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan’s increasingly dictatorial actions increase the risk that Turkey will seek nuclear weapons capabilities – tools that Erdogan may find useful for consolidating power and augmenting Turkey’s regional power status. Turkey is also adamant about making its nuclear infrastructure as independent from foreign aid as possible, as soon as it has acquired the needed workforce and technology. Turkey’s interpretation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as granting a “right to enrich” and its resistance to tightened Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) restrictions on transfers of enrichment and reprocessing technology are strong indicators of a desire to keep open the possibility of advanced fuel cycle development. Therefore, although official statements deny Turkish plans to acquire enrichment capabilities, NSG member states should block any attempts by Turkey to import technology that would support enrichment facilities and further destabilize the Middle East. National intelligence agencies should watch for any signs of illicit efforts by Turkey to procure these or weaponization knowledge and capabilities. — Sarah Burkhard et al., “Nuclear Infrastructure and Proliferation Risks of the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Egypt“, Institute for Science and International Security, 25 August 2017, p. 10.

United Arab Emirates
Since the late 1970s, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has periodically expressed an interest in nuclear energy. It has a long history of technical cooperation projects with IAEA. Beyond that the UAE has been pursuing its own nuclear plans. Yet, the UAE also faces strategic threats that have caused the government’s decision to explore a national nuclear programme. Its domestic security situation seems to justify its choice. While the possibilities of eventual proliferation ultimately depend on future political choices, and can therefore never be completely excluded in the programme early years.

Four Korean designed APR-1400 reactors are being built at Barakah by a consortium led by KEPCO. Construction on the first unit began in July 2012, unit 2 in May 2013, unit 3 in September 2014 and unit 4 in September 2015 (World Nuclear Association, “Nuclear Power in the United Arab Emirates“, March 2018). Unit 1 is now in the commissioning and testing phase and is waiting for nuclear regulation to issue an operating licence before fuel loading can commence. Unit 2 is now more than 92% completed. Unit 3 more than 81% completed and unit 4 more than 67% completed. All four units are expected to be in service by the end of 2020. (“Barakah 1 Construction Formally Complete“, World Nuclear News, 26.03.2018).

In early 2009 the UAE signed an agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation under the US Atomic Energy Act with the United States, forfeiting its right to enrich Uranium domestically. By the end of July 2012 Australia and the UAE signed an agreement paving the way for sales of Australian Uranium. But, lately the UAE have declared that should Iran be allowed to enrich Uranium, the UAE will not see itself bound by its agreement with the United States (Deb Riechmann, “UAE Tells US Lawmaker It Has Right to Enrich Uranium, too“, AP News, 16 October 2015).

Construction of UAE's first nuclear power plant at the Barakah site.

Construction of UAE’s first nuclear power plant at the Barakah site.

The pursuit of nuclear capabilities in the Middle East gives countries in the region the right to adopt policies and forge alliances with countries that possess nuclear technology with a view to striking a military balance in the region in defence of their interests. A nuclear Middle East will have profound impact on the security and non-proliferation issues in the Middle East. There is to take into consideration that in the foreseeable future several countries will decide on a collective breakout from the NPT. The objective of a total nuclear disarmament in the Middle East will not be achieved as long as it excludes Israel. What is more: As long as one other country has the potential to make and use nuclear weapons, it makes no sense for any other country to give up altogether its own nuclear capabilities.

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UK Naval Support Facility in Bahrain Opens

Imagery acquired on 08MAR2018 of the UK Naval Support Facility in Bahrain. (DigitalGlobe).

Imagery acquired on 08MAR2018 of the UK Naval Support Facility in Bahrain. (DigitalGlobe).

The opening of a United Kingdom Naval Support Facility (NSF) in Bahrain is the latest in a series of moves that continues to see a stronger UK defence presence with countries in the Gulf. In pursuing a policy of returning to facilities “East of the Suez,” the UK is reversing the country’s 1971 decision to withdraw from the region.

The British facility, located adjacent to the US Naval Support Activity Bahrain, can host over 300 British military personnel and civilians, and can accommodate up to nearly 550 people for short periods, according to the Royal Navy. Up to six Royal Navy vessels will be permanently based at the NSF whose depth and berthing space can accommodate Queen Elizabeth class carriers.

At the opening ceremony, Commodore Steve Dainton, United Kingdom Maritime Component Commander based in Bahrain, said the NSF will allow for longer term deployments in the Gulf and the wider region, becoming a hub for naval operations across the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

The construction of the NSF is a significant step in reassuring allies and deterring would be aggressors in the Gulf, a clear signal of the UK’s growing engagement since the Bahrain Defence Cooperation Agreement was signed in November 2012.

In addition to Bahrain, the UK also recently closed negotiations to access other complementary naval facilities in Oman. In August 2017, the UK Defence Secretary signed an agreement securing access to the port of Duqm, located on the southeast coast. Plans to establish a Joint Logistics Support Base at the location were also reiterated. The MoD particularly set its sights on Duqm to utilize the port’s dry docks to support the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, the largest ship in the British navy.

Bottom Line – The UK shows no signs of curtailing its commitment to strengthen military ties with states in the Gulf.

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The Controversial Strongman behind Libya’s Descent into Chaos

Aby Austin Michael Bodetti. He is an analyst and journalist specializing in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has a comedic email list about the Middle East that you can join here.

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

The United States tried to overthrow Muammar al-Gaddafi, dictator of Libya since 1969, for decades. In 1986, US President Ronald Reagan bombed Libya while the United Nations implemented sanctions against the embattled strongman. In 2011, US President Barack Obama assisted Libyan rebels battling al-Gaddafi’s military. Unlike Reagan, however, Obama would succeed: the rebels killed al-Gaddafi in his hometown of Sirte before launching a provisional government that has become one of three competing Libyan governments. One has allied itself with a former American agent.

Khalifa Haftar, part of al-Gaddafi’s inner circle, found himself a prisoner of war (POW) in Chad in late 1980s. Libya had long sought to conquer Chad, its southern neighbour with a population twice Libya’s, and Haftar had suffered one of his country’s many defeats. As Haftar grew embittered with al-Gaddafi during his brief stint in a POW camp, the Central Intelligence Agency recruited him and — after failing to oust al-Gaddafi in the early 1990s — moved Haftar to Northern Virginia. In 2011, Haftar, though comfortable in his home near the George Bush Center for Intelligence, decided to return to Libya for good.

Since 2011, Haftar has evolved into one of Libya’s most divisive public figures. The US, which used to sponsor him, now considers him an irritant. Haftar has expressed little interest in the UN’s attempts to achieve a political settlement to the factionalism that has plagued Libya since 2011, frustrating the international community, which would prefer to focus on crises in North Korea and Syria. “Haftar is not interested in democracy”, a former official from the US State Department told The Washington Post in August 2016. “I don’t even think he’s particularly interested in peace”.

Haftar perceives himself through a messiah complex, describing himself as saving Libya from civil war, terrorism, and itself. “Everyone told me the same thing”, he said in an interview with The New Yorker in early 2015. “‘We are looking for a savior. Where are you?’ I told them, ‘If I have the approval of the people, I will act.'” Now that al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) have made Libya one of their many homes, Haftar bills himself as an anti-Islamist strongman. He has aligned himself with the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk, fighting militias in Benghazi and Derna.

After the HoR replaced the General National Congress in August 2014, it became the de facto representative of the Libyan state until the formation of the Government of National Accord (GNA). The GNA is an interim government, which was formed by the signature of a political agreement in December 2015. Because this agreement has been based on a UN-led initiative and unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council, the GNA is Libya’s only legitimate government recognized by the UN. In December 2015, the Chairman of the Libyan House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh Issathe declared his support for the political agreement. Later, in Summer 2016, the HoR withdrew its recognition of the GNA in a vote. Until Summer 2016, Britain, France, and the US did support Haftar in his war against Islamists, even if he has refused to support the UN-backed unity government in Tripoli (Karim El-Bar, “Leaked Tapes Expose Western Support for Renegade Libyan General“, Middle East Eye, 8 July 2018). Italy, whose colonial empire controlled Libya until World War II, has also courted the controversial warlord. However, the break between the GNA and the HoR resulted to an end of the support of Haftar by Western states. For example, the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), which oversees the US’s involvement in the Libyan Civil War, denied a relationship with Haftar.

According to the political agreement of December 2015, the Presidential Council presides over the Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli. The GNA should be endorsed by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, which would become the legitimate legislative authority in the Libyan government, but on two occasions the House of Representatives has voted down the list of ministers (Mary Fitzgerald and Mattia Toaldo, „A quick guide to Libya’s main players“, European Council on Foreign Relations, 2017).

According to the political agreement of December 2015, the Presidential Council presides over the Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli. The GNA should be endorsed by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, which would become the legitimate legislative authority in the Libyan government, but on two occasions the House of Representatives has voted down the list of ministers (Mary Fitzgerald and Mattia Toaldo, “A quick guide to Libya’s main players“, European Council on Foreign Relations, 2017).

However, AFRICOM has launched airstrikes against ISIS affiliates and other militants throughout Libya, trying to balance counterterrorism with conflict resolution in the country. The last airstrike, the first time against an affiliate of al-Qaeda, took place in coordination with the GNA near Ubari in late March as the US continues to fight its oldest foe in the War on Terror. “As part of the overall US government effort, US Africa Command remains committed to working with Libya and our international partners to help resolve the political conflict and advance stabilization in Libya”, Samantha Reho, an AFRICOM spokeswoman, told in an email.

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have fewer qualms about Haftar. Egypt has conducted airstrikes to assist the warlord in his campaign to conquer Derna, and the UAE has provided him covert close air support. Haftar has done his best to take advantage of the proxy war in Libya, even traveling to Russia, which has provided him at least three billion dollars’ worth of support in Libyan currency and the help of Russian technicians, who refit, renew, and upgrade the military capabilities of the Libyan National Army, which almost entirely relies on Soviet weaponry (see also Lincoln Pigman and Kyle Ortin, “Inside Putin’s Libyan Power Play“, Foreign Policy, 14.09.2017). The support of Haftar represents Russian’s double standard. As a member of the UN Security Council, Russia endorsed the GNA, but supports now Haftar, which is fighting against the GNA and which is involvement in war crimes in Benghazi and Derna. Haftar captured Benghazi from Islamist militias in July 2017, and he has besieged Derna for over a year, alarming aid agencies.

Nevertheless, Haftar may find that his foray into politics will encounter a few problems. Critics have accused his son of looting the Central Bank of Libya’s branch in Benghazi after Haftar captured the city. He has also set preconditions for negotiations with the GNA, threatening to unravel what little remains of Libya’s stability. The warlord has come far since his time as a Gaddafi stooge and POW, but he has much further to go, if he wants to return to the halls of power in Tripoli. For now, he must remain in the east of a country that, as a CIA asset, he abandoned for over two decades. Haftar has a ways to go to power.

• • •

The social order in Libya has broken down. You have massive protests against Qaddafi. You’ve got tribal divisions inside of Libya. Benghazi is a focal point for the opposition regime. And Qaddafi is marching his army toward Benghazi, and he has said, ‘We will kill them like rats.’ Now, option one would be to do nothing, and there were some in my administration who said, as tragic as the Libyan situation may be, it’s not our problem. The way I looked at it was that it would be our problem if, in fact, complete chaos and civil war broke out in Libya. But this is not so at the core of U.S. interests that it makes sense for us to unilaterally strike against the Qaddafi regime. At that point, you’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game. Free riders. So what I said at that point was, we should act as part of an international coalition. But because this is not at the core of our interests, we need to get a UN mandate; we need Europeans and Gulf countries to be actively involved in the coalition; we will apply the military capabilities that are unique to us, but we expect others to carry their weight. And we worked with our defense teams to ensure that we could execute a strategy without putting boots on the ground and without a long-term military commitment in Libya. So we actually executed this plan as well as I could have expected: We got a UN mandate, we built a coalition, it cost us $1 billion — which, when it comes to military operations, is very cheap. We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess. — Barack Obama, cited in Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine: The U.S. President Talks through His Hardest Decisions about America’s Role in the World“, The Atlantic, April 20016).

• • •

Update April 12, 2018:
We had nothing to do with it; I promise! Libyan military chief Khalifa Haftar severely ill after stroke. According to France 24, he was rushed to the Jordanian capital of Amman after losing consciousness in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi and was later transferred to a Paris hospital, after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage. However, a spokesman of the Libyan National Army told the Libyan Al-Nabaa TV station that Haftar was fine and in good condition. The spokesman denied all reports of Haftar suffering a stroke or a heart attack.


Posted in Austin Michael Bodetti, English, Libya, Politics in General, Security Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Turkey’s Incursion into Syria is Straining Diplomatic Relations and the US Troops Fighting ISIS

by Darien Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh is a contributor for War is Boring and Reverb Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for Auntie Bellum.

Civilians ran for cover in Afrin on Sunday, 18 March. Tens of thousands had already evacuated as the fall of the city neared (Photo: Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images).

Civilians ran for cover in Afrin on Sunday, 18 March. Tens of thousands had already evacuated as the fall of the city neared (Photo: Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images).

Two weeks ago the Pentagon acknowledged that Turkey’s ongoing assault on the Kurdish-controlled region of Afrin in northern Syria has strained US troops battling the remnants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the country. Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) left their positions in the city of Manbij and elsewhere to help defend Afrin against Turkey. US troops who had been fighting ISIS in the Euphrates Valley had to replace the Kurds in strategic areas they left.  

“That has had an effect on our ability to finish off ISIS in the lower Euphrates River Valley. It has slowed the pace of our advance,” US Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie said in response to a question about the Kurd’s redeployments at a Department Of Defense press briefing on 15 March. “I would not say that ISIS is gaining any momentum, but I would instead say the inevitable conclusion of this has been slowed by the fact that not so much rank and file, but some leadership has moved back up to the north”.

Much of northern Syria, including the Afrin region, is part of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), which is commonly referred to as Rojava. YPG militias began fighting ISIS and other groups in northern Syria for control of the territory in 2012. The YPG then merged with various Arab, Turkmen, Armenian, and Assyrian militias to form the The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in 2015.

The Kurdish militias and SDF are widely considered to be the most effective fighting force against ISIS on the ground. With the help of US airstrikes, they have liberated huge swaths of Syria from the terrorist organization. Kurdish militias in Iraq, who operate independently from those in Syria, were vital in defeating ISIS in their country as well.

The SDF proved itself so capable of defeating ISIS that in May of 2017 US President Donald Trump approved a plan to provide weapons to the SDF so it could lead the siege on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital at the time. Turkey, which is a member of NATO and a US ally, adamantly protested the decision. Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been leading a Kurdish insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984. The PKK is considered a terrorist group by the United States, Turkey, and the European Union. The YPG contends that while they are inspired by the same concepts of communalism and democratic confederalism espoused by the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, they are independent of the PKK and do not support terrorist activities.

SDF, YPG, and YPF flags in Raqqa after its liberation from ISIS.

Even though the SDF and YPG are not technically the same entity, distinguishing the two is complicated. YPG units account for roughly half of the SDF’s soldiers and are considered the backbone of its fighting force. The US agreed that the YPG is distinct from the PKK, and has since supplied them with machine guns, ammunition, mortars, anti-tank weapons, armored vehicles, and engineering equipment. The SDF also acquired ops-core helmets and sensitive advanced tech such as night vision goggles, rifle optics, and infrared illuminators used by US special operators, but the Pentagon denied supplying those materials and suggested they were funneled to the SDF by “other means through other sources”.

When SDF forces liberated Raqqa from ISIS last November and tore down ISIS flags throughout the city, it was SDF and YPG flags they raised in their place.

Turkey watched from across the border as the area controlled by the DFNS grew and its Kurdish militias and governing councils consolidated their power. From Turkey’s perspective, this presented the possibility that the semi-autonomous Kurdish state could remain in perpetuity and become a safe haven and source of support for the PKK and other Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

After the Iraqi government announced in December that ISIS had been military defeated in that country as well, the situation changed for Turkey. With ISIS’s infrastructure and capabilities drastically diminished in both Iraq and Syria, the SDF was no longer as valuable to the US. They had served their purpose. Moving against them would be discouraged but ultimately allowed.

Ankara’s growing frustrations were exasperated when news broke on 13 January that the US would help the SDF train and fund a new 30,000-strong border security force, half of which would be SDF fighters. The border security force was supposedly intended to help prevent members of ISIS and other terrorist groups from entering Rojava from Turkey and Iraq or from across the Euphrates River, which currently separates areas controlled by the SDF from those controlled by Syrian government and anti-government rebels.

Turkish tanks on the road to Afrin.

The announcement enraged Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saw it as an indication that the US was actively supporting Kurdish autonomy and helping to further bolster its military capabilities. He referred to the proposed border force as a “terror army” and vowed that Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels would destroy all of the “terror nests” along its border. Afrin and Manbij were named as the first targets.

The idea of the border force was opposed by nearly every military actor in the conflict, except the US and SDF, of course. The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, which has a tenuous relationship with the SDF, called the plan a “blatant attack” on its sovereignty. Russia and Iran, Assad’s two primary foreign allies in the conflict, also condemned the plan and suggested it was a move by the US to partition Syria. The US quickly downplayed the projected strength and function of the border force and subsequently promised Ankara it would quit supplying the SDF with weapons.

A daily map of the Turkish military operation in Afrin (Image: Nate Hooper, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license).

A daily map of the Turkish military operation in Afrin (Image: Nate Hooper, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license).

Turkey was not satisfied. It began cross-border shelling of areas in the Afrin region on 19 January, and officially launched Operation Olive Branch the following day with a series of airstrikes on numerous Kurdish positions there. Turkish soldiers and ordinance began streaming into Syria. Even though Erdogan stated he intends to wipe out out the YPG in the area, Ankara has tried to justify the campaign by asserting it is also fighting ISIS in Afrin. There is no evidence that ISIS is active in any significant way in the area.

Afrin is particularly difficult for the Kurds to defend because it is cut off from the rest of Rojava by areas controlled by the Syrian government or the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA). Manbij is often considered part of the Afrin region even though its government and demographics differ somewhat from other communities in Rojava, but it is separated from the rest of Afrin region and is also cut off from Rojava by the Euphrates River.

The Turkish troops and their rebel allies in Syria have taken roughly 70 percent of the Afrin district, including around 280 towns and villages. On 18 March, the TFSA and the Turkish forces have captured the city of Afrin. Shortly after its capture, TFSA fighters looted parts of the city and destroyed numerous Kurdish symbols, including a statue of Kawa the Blacksmith, as Turkish troops solidified control by raising Turkish flags and banners over the city.

A statue in Afrin of Kawa the Blacksmith, a figure from Kurdish and Persian mythology, was toppled by the rebels on Sunday (Photo: Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images).

A statue in Afrin of Kawa the Blacksmith, a figure from Kurdish and Persian mythology, was toppled by the rebels on Sunday (Photo: Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images).

Turkey’s insistence that it will move on to Manbij after Afrin presents an exceptionally complicated military and diplomatic situation. Manbij is roughly 100 km east of the city of Afrin and is defended by Manbij Military Council (MMC), which is comprised primarily of local Arabs but aligned with the SDF and YPG.

The MMC formed in 2016 after the SDF pushed ISIS out of the city. US troops helped organize and train the MMC and continue to provide training, materials, and logistical support. This has made them a target for the rebels aligned with Turkey and hostile to the SDF. According to a report from CNN, rebels in the area regularly fire on US patrols, who occasionally return fire in self-defense.

Fighters from the Euphrates Liberation Brigade, a faction of the MMC, in Manbij.

Fighters from the Euphrates Liberation Brigade, a faction of the MMC, in Manbij.

Four days after Turkey’s invasion began, the White House issued a statement saying that Trump had contacted Erdogan and “urged Turkey to exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces”. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu offered a different perspective on the conversation between the two leaders and claimed instead Erdogan asked Trump to withdraw US troops from Manbij.

Direct conflict between two NATO members like the US and Turkey is incredibly unlikely, but if neither side backs down on the issue of Manbij it could escalate a tensions in an area where Syria, Russia, Turkey, Iran, the US, the SDF, and several other militias and operatives from additional NATO countries are all currently active.

That could lead to more US troops who would otherwise be fighting ISIS in the Euphrates Valley being redeployed to cities Turkey pushed the SDF out of to ensure that ISIS does not use move in and establish a toehold. American forces might also have to assume a peacekeeping role to prevent the conflict between Turkey and the SDF from spiraling further out of control.

Çavuşoğlu was quoted by the Turkish daily Hürriyet as saying that the US and Turkey were negotiating the exit of YPG forces from Manbij and that if the YPG refused to leave then “a military operation will be carried out not only in Manbij, but also to the east of the Euphrates”.

The US has repeatedly confirmed it will not remove its troops from Manbij but has not officially stated if US military personnel would be involved in coordinating a peaceful withdrawal of SDF or YPG forces from the city. With the plan for the border force nixed, the US may also have to divert resources to securing the borders surrounding Rojava.

Regardless of the different roles they may fill, it is clear is that additional US forces are being sent to the Manbij. “I could tell you that we have probably done some repositioning to make sure of our own force protection, both down south, as well as up in Manbij,” McKenzie stated at the press briefing.

Fighters loot shops after seizing control of Afrin from Kurdish forces on Sunday, 18 March.

Fighters loot shops after seizing control of Afrin from Kurdish forces on Sunday, 18 March.

Posted in Darien Cavanaugh, English, International, Security Policy, Syria, Turkey | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

PLAN Vessels Mobilize in South China Sea: A Timeline

Open Water imagery acquired by Planet Labs on 26MAR2018.

Open Water imagery acquired by Planet Labs on 26MAR2018.

Almost fifty People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels were mobilized in the South China Sea not far from Hainan Island, satellite imagery acquired in late March by Planet Labs confirms. Hainan Island is host to China’s strategic base for military operations in the region.

Centered amongst the warships was China’s only in-service aircraft carrier, Liaoning (CV-16), which had sailed south mid-March from Qingdao with the first Type 901 replenishment ship, Hulun Hu (965), in addition to several other vessels. In January, China announced it had started construction on its third aircraft carrier.

Planet Labs Imagery from 21MAR2018 of the PLAN Yulin Support Base.

Planet Labs Imagery from 21MAR2018 of the PLAN Yulin Support Base.

Along the way, the Liaoning sailed through the Taiwan Strait, a vivid reminder to the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense of the imbalance of power between the two countries (see also Paul Pryce, “Cross-Strait Relations After China’s 19th Party Congress“,, 10.03.2018). China considers Taiwan’s status a part of the country’s “core interest”.

By 21 March 2018, Planet imagery captured the arrival of several additional vessels to the Yulin Support Base just north where China berths its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) for the South Sea Fleet. A total of twenty-three vessels were located at the two finger piers and adjacent wharf at the time of capture. Those vessels subsequently departed the following day.

Planet Labs Imagery from 24MAR2018 of the PLAN Yulin Support Base carrier pier.

Planet Labs Imagery from 24MAR2018 of the PLAN Yulin Support Base carrier pier.

Two days later on 24 March 2018, we get our first glimpse of China’s CV-16 in the area, berthing at the carrier pier immediately west of the SSBNs. Imagery shows the carrier arriving and departing on the same day, likely joining the group of vessels assembling just south of Hainan.

Partially cloud covered imagery from 25 March (below) captures these vessels sailing in the vicinity of the island — though at the time, the Liaoning was not spotted. The following day, imagery shows the vessels mobilized and sailing uniformly with the carrier in what most media sources are calling a show of force. The Chinese state media however, has not released photos of the exercise.

Planet imagery acquired on 25MAR2018 south of Hainan island.

Planet imagery acquired on 25MAR2018 south of Hainan island.

Planet imagery acquired on 25MAR2018 south of Hainan island.

Planet imagery acquired on 25MAR2018 south of Hainan island.

Planet Labs imagery south of Hainan on 26MAR2018.

Planet Labs imagery south of Hainan on 26MAR2018.

Planet Labs imagery south of Hainan on 26MAR2018.

Planet Labs imagery south of Hainan on 26MAR2018.

After 26 March, we don’t know much about where these vessels set sail. Imagery acquired on the 27th continued to show the Liaoning staying close to Hainan island. Support ships, notably the Hulun Hu (965), remained at the carrier pier. Unfortunately, imagery of the two finger piers at the eastern section of the Yulin Support Base was not available on the 27th, and imagery of the piers was cloud covered on 28 March. While we were unable to verify CV-16’s exact location on the 28th and 29th, the carrier’s support ships were still visible at the carrier pier which could suggest the Liaoning remained nearby. 

A press briefing held on Thursday by the Chinese Ministry of Defense provided no further clarity as to the carrier’s whereabouts. The MoD spokesman, Ren Guoqiang, stated that the deployment was a part of regular scheduled training aimed at enhancing training capabilities. “As to the specific movements of the aircraft carrier the Liaoning, the navy will release information in due course,” said the spokesman without elaborating.

It is not yet known how long PLAN combat drills in the South China Sea will last or if drills will push close to disputed waters.

Bottom Line
China continues to send assets from the North China Sea Fleet to participate in exercises in the South. The deployment demonstrates a focus on PLAN readiness and capability, as it pushes to have multiple carrier groups operational by 2030.

Posted in Armed Forces, China, English, Intelligence, Sea Control, Sea Powers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Taking a different tack: The use of drones for disaster response

by Sandra Ivanov. Sandra Ivanov is from New Zealand with a postgraduate education in Peace and Conflict Studies. She was formerly a policy advisor in the New Zealand public service and now primarily works in the development sector. You can connect with and follow her updates on Twitter.

Armed drones, airstrikes and stealth operations are the most popular and controversial topics of discussion when it comes to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), however there are more uses for these aircrafts in times of trouble. Drones do not have to be used to destroy targets, but can be used for their primary purpose, to collect information and data to help communities. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, drones could be the difference between life and death.

Statistics projecting the global production of UAVs between 2013 and 2027, show that 95% of drones will be produced for military use, and only 5% for civilian use. With the development of technology weaved through the 2030 United Nations agenda on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), examining the importance of drones in a capacity-building sense becomes important. The dedicated goals for technological advancement in the UN agenda requires nations to address the needs and gaps in technology, improve cooperation, and facilitate the development, transfer and dissemination of relevant technologies. With this in mind, it’s time to look beyond the militarisation of drones, and consider the 5% of civilian uses – one of them being in humanitarian action such as disaster response.

Examples of drone models used in humanitarian action (Source: "Drones in Humanitarian Action: A Guide to the Use of Airborne Systems in Humanitarian Crises", Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, 14.02.2017.

Examples of drone models used in humanitarian action (Source: “Drones in Humanitarian Action: A Guide to the Use of Airborne Systems in Humanitarian Crises“, Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, 14.02.2017.

How are drones used in times of disaster and what is the extent of their capabilities?
The impacts of climate change are affecting the frequency and force of natural disasters. Last year we saw the scale of disasters affecting the most vulnerable communities such as in Peru, the Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, and Sierra Leone. We are also observing how even one of the most powerful nations, the United States, in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, has not been able to deal with these emergencies quickly.

Drones, or UAVs, can alleviate and impact the speed of recovery efforts for communities to restore their livelihoods. In the case of natural disasters, drones can be used for land monitoring, remote sensing, and public security. They are able to perform many activities in disaster response work such as locating survivors and casualties, assessing the scale of damage, delivering supplies and aid to hard-to-reach areas, and prioritising high-need areas for recovery efforts.

Drones can benefit disaster response efforts in the following ways:

  • They are safe to use – As promoted in the military context, drones can enter vulnerable areas quickly without risking human safety. The people controlling the device, and the camera, are left in a safe location to coordinate and process the information gathered also allowing for a faster response.
  • They do not cost a lot – Drones are relatively cost-effective in comparison to aircrafts which require people on-board to operate them. With many designs and types being developed, it is possible to design a UAV aircraft to a size and weight which is not only inexpensive, but practical to use.
  • They can collect information and deliver aid to hard-to-reach areas – In times of disaster when infrastructure is damaged, roads are blocked, or people are cut off from means of transportation, drones have the capability to deliver aid and supplies to hard-to-reach areas. Heavy-duty drones can even deliver temporary infrastructure to these areas. It is a humanitarian imperative to supply life-saving equipment as fast as possible to populations affected by disasters, therefore drones have the potential to determine whether a relief operation is deemed a success or a failure. However, the technology for drones to deliver supplies is still in its infancy, and further advancement with this technology is required for the use of UAVs to be standardised for disaster response.
  • They produce high quality images quickly, and in turn allow for a faster response – In addition to UAV technology, methods of capturing images and mapping disaster areas include manned aircrafts such as helicopters, and satellite images. However, with the deployment of manned aircrafts being an expensive option, and satellite imagery producing lower quality image resolution, drones are an alternative for humanitarian action.
    Satellite images are mainly used for early impact analysis on small or medium map scales such as flood events, however, damage to infrastructure and critical areas require data to be processed on a large scale with higher resolution images. Satellites also cannot go below cloud cover which causes delays in capturing images. “After Superstorm Sandy, the New Jersey state Office of Emergency Management used imagery from FEMA satellites to coordinate actions, but could not use the images taken on many days because of persistent cloud cover” (“Drones for Disaster Response and Relief Operations“, April 2015, p. 16). Drones are able to go beyond cloud cover and process images and information faster.
  • They can improve communication links – An innovative ability of UAVs is their capability to act as temporary telecommunication devices. In many cases, natural disasters disrupt modes of communication due to damages to power lines and communication towers, causing a loss of cell-phone signal. Drones in these situations can send Wi-Fi and cell-phone coverage to those in affected areas.
  • They can make disaster response efforts more coordinated – With drones able to supply higher-definition images faster, organisations can work together in disaster response operations to better coordinate their supplies and personnel. Drones collecting information in remote areas can provide humanitarians with a bigger picture of the situation.

The use of drones in the Pacific
The Pacific region is one of the world’s most disaster-prone areas due to the small size of islands, their remoteness, and fragile biodiversity. Many islands have low elevation of land, and are exposed to changing ocean weather patterns. Over the last two decades, the number of casualties caused by weather-related disasters in the Pacific region has risen by over 21% and will only continue to grow (Justin T Locke, “Climate Change-Induced Migration in the Pacific Region: Sudden Crisis and Long-Term Developments“, Geographical Journal 175, no. 3, September 2009, p. 6).

Most recently in February 2018, the Kingdom of Tonga was hit by the worst cyclone in 60 years. The country’s emergency response team “said they were struggling to assess damage around the capital and the islands due to debris blocking roads and downed power lines, and were not likely to have a comprehensive assessment of the disaster” (Eleanor Ainge Roy, “Cyclone Gita: Tonga Devastated by Worst Storm in 60 Years“, the Guardian, 12.02.2018). The World Bank with the support of the Australian government used drones to assess the damage after Tropical Cyclone Gita to identify the level of damage across the many islands it has affected.

The UAVs in Tonga have flown across damaged areas, with the images being processed overnight into photographic maps to prioritise areas for recovery. The technology used allows for a comparison of the land before and after the cyclone, and will be able to increase the speed of recovery and improve the way resources are targeted for the disaster response.

In 2015, after the islands of Vanuatu experienced Tropical Cyclone Pam, one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history, the World Bank asked the Humanitarian UAV Network to deploy aircrafts to support their needs assessment. Working with officials from Vanuatu and representatives from Australia’s and New Zealand’s defence forces, the group created procedures for the operation, and identified government priorities for the initial assessment areas.

The UAVs carried out 200 flights, producing high-resolution images of infrastructure and damaged areas, and flew to areas with high altitude levels, typically unable to be reached by helicopters. Although the UAV mission had many challenges, the objective of the mission was achieved in that the drones mapped areas more quickly than any other available method.

Many institutions are increasingly using UAV technology to assess the damage caused by disasters. The International Organization for Migration has used drones in Haiti since 2012, Médecins Sans Frontières and the World Health Organization piloted the use of drones in Papua New Guinea and Bhutan in 2014, and several institutions have also used drones to map progress since the devastating earthquakes in Nepal in 2015.

Following the devastation of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, Australian operator Heliwest used Lockheed Martin Indago small unmanned aerial system (UAS) to collected imagery of the damage.

Following the devastation of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, Australian operator Heliwest used Lockheed Martin Indago small unmanned aerial system (UAS) to collected imagery of the damage.

Challenges and considerations for the use of drones for disaster response
When introducing a piece of technology for a new function, or into a different industry, working through challenges and unanswered questions is expected, and the use of UAVs in disaster response is no exception.

The first challenge for the use of UAVs is the removal of human interaction when it comes to responding to a disaster. Can information collected by drones truly assess the needs of the people on the ground? Is it possible for aid and supplies to be distributed evenly and without discrimination if there is no human presence? Although the technology of drones is effective, it cannot replace the context-specific understanding only obtained through human interaction. Striking the right combination of computer and technological capabilities, with the logic and decision-making abilities of humans is a challenge to overcome.

In addition to this, drones are usually attributed to military operations, and communities may assume they are being used for covert operations or collecting information for alternative uses. The presence of people to promote participatory processes around the use of drones in a civilian context is required.

Linked to the issues of unmanned operations of disaster relief is the ethical concerns surrounding data collection. As UAVs collect information on a large scale, there need to be standards and procedures created for the assessment of how data is used, and how it is protected. This will also alleviate community concerns around information sharing.

A significant road block to the timely deployment of drones in the aftermath of natural disasters is obtaining approval from national authorities who control the airspace, customs and laws which impact humanitarian operations. Using the United States as one example, the use of drones for disaster relief is limited by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) who require users to obtain a certain type of “Certificate of Authorisation”, a special airworthiness certificate, or be an UAV official test site participant. Not only this, but UAVs must be able to meet certain requirements and registration for hobby and non-hobby use of these aircrafts.

At the moment, even companies with special exemptions from the FAA cannot quickly respond to disasters because of the challenges they face with the process around the “Certificate of Authorisation”. “This process may take up to 60 days, and if left unchanged would further delay the use of drones to collect aerial data for disaster response efforts” (“Drones for Disaster Response and Relief Operations“, April 2015, p. 5).

Workers of the British NGO Serve On, working with the Department for International Development (DFID), use a drone in the town of Chautara, Nepal, badly affected by the earthquake (Photo: Jessica Lea / DFID).

Workers of the British NGO Serve On, working with the Department for International Development (DFID), use a drone in the town of Chautara, Nepal, badly affected by the earthquake (Photo: Jessica Lea / DFID).

Legislative, regulatory and privacy concerns need to be addressed around the use of UAVs in special circumstances such as natural disasters. Without the review of national and international mechanisms, the ability for UAVs to effectively be used in disaster response situations will not be progressed. A few recommendations are offered here for future consideration:

  • Developing an international code of conduct on the use of drones in disaster response. As of yet, a current code of conduct does not proscribe specific behaviours or structures, but only sets in place standards for use;
  • Developing an emergency “Certificate of Authorisation” process for humanitarian organisations for the use of UAVs in disaster response operations. Strengthen efforts already in motion to shape the policies of nations to provide exemptions and approval processes on the use of drones in humanitarian contexts;
  • In line with the SDGs, states and humanitarian organisations must work together to further develop UAV technology, involving organisations in the testing phase of technologies and connecting local communities to the use of these technologies;
  • The use of drones in disaster relief efforts must be transparent and open with the communities they are assisting. Communities should be asked for their consent, and be aware of their flights and information on the data they will be collecting;
  • The use of UAV technology in disaster response is still in its infancy. A collection of evidence-based practice and examples should be collected and documented to test and evaluate the outcomes of their use in these operations. Strong evidence is required for the promotion of this technology in humanitarian contexts.
Posted in Drones, English, Sandra Ivanov | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Power Plays in the Indian Ocean: The “Great Game” Goes to Sea?

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

Even as tensions simmer between India and China on the Doklam Plateau, where troops from both sides engaged in a two-month standoff in 2017 over Chinese efforts to build a road through territory disputed by India and Bhutan, the rivalry continues unabated at sea — namely, in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). Although India has long enjoyed a relatively undisputed dominion over these waters, China has stepped up its military presence in recent years. In 2016, China began construction of a naval base in Djibouti, ostensibly to support regional efforts to combat piracy. In December 2017, Sri Lanka signed a debt-to-equity swap with China, granting a 99-year lease on the port of Hambantota.

With Hambantota less than 500 kilometres from the southern coast of India, the establishment of a Chinese presence places considerable pressure on the Indian Navy. But India, too, has been busy establishing its own network of bases throughout the IOR, most notably a series of naval and airbases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This chain of 572 islands, located approximately 1,200 kilometres away from mainland India, grants the Indian Navy control over access to the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most vital shipping routes. In the event of a large-scale conflict between India and China, it would be possible for India to use this presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to severely limit China’s access to resources essential to the country’s industry.

India seems keenly aware, however, of its relatively weak presence in the western IOR. Whereas a collection of countries have established bases in Djibouti — including not only China but also the United States, France, Italy, and Japan — India has traditionally maintained only coastal surveillance radar stations in Madagascar and Mauritius. To ensure that India retains the lead in the western IOR, a 20-year agreement was signed with the Seychelles in January 2018 to build an airstrip and jetty on the Assumption Islands for use by the Indian military. The stated purpose of this pact is to fight illegal fishing, poaching, and other criminal activity in the Seychelles’ exclusive economic zone, and this is certainly a plausible basis for the partnership: the Seychelles People’s Defence Force (SPDF) maintains a small fleet of seven patrol boats, mostly donated by China and the United Arab Emirates, and four fixed-wing patrol aircraft with which to defend an archipelago of 115 islands.

Source: Monte Reel, "Djibouti Is Hot: How a forgotten sandlot of a country became a hub of international power games", Bloomberg Businessweek, 23.03.2016.

Source: Monte Reel, “Djibouti Is Hot: How a forgotten sandlot of a country became a hub of international power games“, Bloomberg Businessweek, 23.03.2016. Klick on the image to enlarge it!

The Indian airstrip and jetty in the Seychelles can be interpreted as fulfilling two strategic aims. The first is, of course, its stated purpose: as fish stocks collapse on Latin America’s Pacific coast, Chinese industrial fishing fleets are venturing further westward into the Indian Ocean, creating a real threat to the Seychelles’ $210 million US fish and seafood industry. It has also been well-documented that China uses its fishing fleets to exert sovereignty in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and the East China Sea, and China will certainly continue to use such tactics in the IOR in order to advance the claim that certain strategic waterways are international rather than the territorial domain of any given country. Therefore, partnering with the Seychelles and other regional neighbours to combat illegal fishing is certainly in keeping with India’s security interests.

But the establishment of this base also achieves a second strategic aim for India: ensuring rapid response to any future incursion by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) into the IOR. Were tensions to escalate between India and China at some point in the future, the Indian Navy would have the capacity to launch forces from the Seychelles, Madagascar, and Mauritius to intercept PLAN vessels deployed from Djibouti to harass Indian shipping. It is uncertain, however, whether the berthing at any of these bases is sufficient to accommodate vessels of such size that they would be able to serve as an effective deterrent to Chinese aggression in the western IOR. If the current berthing is inadequate, India may need to seek berthing rights at a more substantial port, much like China’s own arrangements in Djibouti or at Hambantota.

PS Constant docked at the Seychelles Coast Guard base before the handing over in November 2014. It was the second vessel India turned over to Seychelles.

PS Constant docked at the Seychelles Coast Guard base before the handing over in November 2014. It was the second vessel India turned over to Seychelles.

In any case, it is likely this “dangerous dance” will continue between the two powers, with China and India both fearing containment and thus constantly seeking the geopolitical upper hand in the IOR. India will have to step up its efforts if it wishes to maintain its traditional sphere of influence; while the partnership with the Seychelles is a positive step, much of India’s moves have been reactionary. In contrast, China has offered a clear strategic vision for the region, known as “the 21st century Maritime Silk Road“, as well as potent maritime capabilities in the form of PLAN’s South Sea Fleet and a network of bases in the IOR to accommodate these ships. Just as in the Doklam Plateau, India can ill-afford to let China lead the dance.

Looking Over China’s Latest Great Wall“, Stratfor, 26.07.2017.

Posted in Armed Forces, China, Djibouti, English, India, International, Paul Pryce, Sea Powers, Security Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment