ASCF Report | 3.2.15
By Alan W. Dowd

As America focuses on “nation-building here at home,” the world is growing more dangerous and less stable by the day. If you doubt this, take a look at the latest headlines. They range from worrisome to terrifying. Let’s start here in the Western Hemisphere.

“Russian Bombers to Patrol Gulf of Mexico”—Newsweek
Apparently nostalgic for the bad old days of the Cold War, Russia’s defense minister recently announced Moscow will deploy long-range bombers “to maintain military presence in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific, as well as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.” That’s just the latest example of Russian encroachment in the Americas:

  • Russian lawmakers have approved a plan to stand up a satellite-monitoring facility in Nicaragua.
  • Russia is reopening a long-dormant intelligence base in Cuba, has deployed naval and air assets to the Caribbean to conduct exercises with the Venezuelan military, and has floated the possibility of basing bombers in Cuba or Venezuela.
  • No less than eight countries in South and Central America have purchased arms from Russia in recent years, with Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico buying $1.75 billion in Russian weaponry in 2013 alone.
  • Russian long-range bombers shuttling between Venezuela and Nicaragua have been caught violating Colombian airspace. Russian warplanes are known to refuel in Venezuela.
  • Late last year, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin wrote the foreword to a book advocating “the historical and judicial right of Russia for the return of the lost colonies, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.”

“New Deals Shore up China’s Stakes in Venezuela and Ecuador”—World Politics Review
Driven by a thirst for oil and other resources, China is aggressively building its economic portfolio in the Western Hemisphere by inking development and aid deals across the region. Beijing is using economic links as a springboard to military-security cooperation:

  • report in a journal of the U.S. Army concludes that China is “winning a foothold” in the Americas, with Chinese small-arms, medium artillery, air defenses and ground-attack aircraft flowing into Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
  • Jane’s Defense reports China is peddling short-range missiles to Peru, surveillance equipment to Peru and Brazil, and warship-repair expertise to Venezuela and Argentina.
  • Chinese-made transport aircraft and armored vehicles have been used by Venezuelan troops to smash anti-authoritarian protests.
  • A study by Joint Forces Quarterly says China has “an important and growing presence in the region’s military institutions.”

“U.S. Military Decimated, Only ‘Marginally Able’ to Defend Nation”—Washington Times
While Beijing and Moscow build up and build out, Washington is slashing U.S. defense spending. Thanks to the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration, defense will account for just 3.2 percent of GDP in 2015, and if current trend lines hold, America will be investing a scant 2.3 percent of GDP in defense by 2022. The last time America invested less than 3 percent in defense was, ominously, 1940. The consequences are on full display:

  • The Navy has been ordered to cut surface combatants from 85 ships to 78, stretch the build time of new aircraft carriers from five to seven years and had to seek a congressional waiver to deploy just 10 carriers (rather than the legally-mandated 11) while USS Gerald Ford is completed.Today’s fleet numbers 284 ships—not even close to what the Navy needs. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.” 
  • Army end strength could shrink  to 420,000 active-duty soldiers and perhaps as low as 380,000. The Army hasn’t been that small since 1940. According to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, today’s Army has “the lowest readiness levels” since he entered the service 37 years ago. Leaked Pentagon documents indicate that sequestration is producing an Army at “high risk to meet even one major war.”
  • The Marine Corps will shrink to between 150,000 and 175,000. Sixty-two percent of non-deployed Marine units “are missing some kind of necessary equipment,” Military Times reports. As Gen. Jim Amos noted before retiring as Marine Corps Commandant, “We are beyond muscle” and will soon “cut into bone.”
  • The Air Force is reducing its fleet by 286 planes. Sequestration has forced the Air Force to ground 33 squadrons. The bomber fleet has shrunk from 173 in 2003 to 144 today, the fighter/attack fleet from 1,628 to 1,289, the tanker fleet from 325 to 246.
  • According to a Military Times survey of active-duty troops, “Today’s service members say they feel underpaid, under-equipped and under-appreciated.” 

This is the best way to invite the worst of possibilities: what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.”

“Vilnius Creates How-To Manual for Dealing with Foreign Invasion”—Radio Free Europe
Lithuania’s Defense Ministry is distributing a new emergency-response manual “to gird citizens for the possibility of invasion, occupation and armed conflict,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports. Ominously titled “How to Act in Extreme Situations or Instances of War,” the manual aims to help Lithuania’s 3 million citizens prepare for a Ukraine-style invasion by Russia. “When Russia started its aggression in Ukraine, our citizens here in Lithuania understood that our neighbor is not friendly,” said Lithuanian Defense Minister Juozas Olekas.

Given Moscow’s aggressive behavior and Washington’s passive behavior, Lithuania cannot be accused of overreacting. After all, Russia has annexed parts of Georgia and Ukraine, carved out an armed Russian zone in eastern Ukraine, increased military spending 108 percent (since 2004), and unveiled a new military doctrine pledging the use of Russia’s armed forces “to ensure the protection of its citizens outside the Russian Federation.” Given that there are five million Russians in Ukraine and a million in the Baltics—and that Putin has reserved for himself the right to determine when, where and whether they need to be protected—this is a recipe for something much more complicated than a new cold war.

“China’s Man-Made Islands in Disputed Waters Raise Worries”—Los Angeles Times
China is in the midst of what The Wall Street Journal calls “a dramatic expansion” of construction of artificial islands on and around the disputed reefs sprinkled across the South China Sea. Satellite imagery indicates that China has built an artificial island covering 75,000 square yards around Hughes Reef. The island includes two piers, a cement plant and a helicopter pad. According to a Los Angeles Times report, “Dredging around Fiery Cross Reef, a former outcropping in the Spratly Islands, over the last year has created a new island nearly two miles long.” Beijing is building similar man-made islands on and around Johnson South Reef and Gaven Reef, which also lie in disputed waters.

The man-made islands, complete with air strips and support infrastructure, have obvious military applications. According to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “China appears to be expanding and upgrading military and civilian infrastructure—including radars, satellite communication equipment, antiaircraft and naval guns, helipads and docks—on some of the man-made islands.”

“China’s Fast-Growing Defense Budget Worries Neighbors”—The Economist
China is boosting its defense budget by double-digit percentages annually: In 2014, Beijing increased military spending by 12.2 percent. This follows increases of 10.7 percent in 2013, 11.6 percent in 2012 and 11.2 percent in 2011. China’s military-related spending has jumped 170 percent the past decade. “By next year,” The New York Times reports, “China will spend more on defense than Britain, Germany and France combined.” Here’s the payoff, according to a recent Pentagon study:

  • China has “a growing ability to project power at increasingly longer ranges.”
  • The PRC air force deploys more than 2,800 aircraft, not including unmanned aerial vehicles. Of these, an estimated 600 are considered “modern” warplanes.
  • “China is developing a multi-dimensional program to improve its capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries during times of crisis or conflict.”
  • China deploys more than 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles and is fielding “a limited but growing number of conventionally armed medium-range ballistic missiles,” giving China “the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific.”
  • China now deploys more attack submarines than the U.S. Navy.

“ISIS Recruiting and Training Kids”—NBC News
ISIS now controls 34,000 square miles of territory—an area the size of Costa Rica. The terror superpower commands an army larger than Belgium’s and perhaps larger than Canada’s, has a $2-billion budget, and reigns over a population of more than 2 million people. Of course, ISIS is merely one symptom of a much larger global trend:

  • There are 41 jihadist-terror groups in 24 countries today—up from 21 in 18 countries in 2004.
  • Boko Haram has murdered, maimed and kidnapped its way through Nigeria and has carved out a state within a state.
  • Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn recently concluded, “According to every metric of significance, Islamic extremism has grown over the last year.”
  • “When the final accounting is done, 2014 will have been the most lethal year for global terrorism in the 45 years such data has been compiled,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reported in February.

Given these trends, it’s no surprise that Saudi Arabiais building a massive 600-mile wall, ditch and berm barrier along its border with Iraq in hopes of protecting the oil-rich kingdom from ISIS. The wall will include 40 watchtowers, 38 communications towers and 32 military posts, as well as an unspecified number of night-vision cameras, helipads and military vehicles. Riyadh has deployed an estimated 30,000 troops to the Iraq border area.

As we contemplate the danger posed by Sunni jihadism, we should not forget the threat posed by the Shiite jihadist regime in Iran, which is methodically inching its way toward the nuclear club. As Henry Kissinger shrewdly observes, Washington has abandoned the goal of a nuclear-free Iran: “Nuclear talks with Iran began as an international effort, buttressed by six U.N. resolutions, to deny Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option. They are now an essentially bilateral negotiation over the scope of that capability through an agreement that sets a hypothetical limit of one year on an assumed breakout. The impact of this approach will be to move from preventing proliferation to managing it.”

“Absence of White House Strategy Makes ISIS, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan Wars Unwinnable”—U.S. News and World Report
Can there be any doubt that there’s a link between these headlines and the Obama administration’s standoff, hands-off foreign policy? After all, this is the “lead from behind,” “nation-building at home,” “Don’t do stupid stuff” administration. Regrettably, the record increasingly suggests that these slogans are little more than euphemisms for a policy of disengagement and inaction—a policy that is failing.

*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.