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The Democratisation of Airpower

Big shifts in the military balance happen quietly over many years, and then leap suddenly into focus when the shooting starts.

It happened to classic blitzkrieg tactics in the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, when both sides lost half their tanks, mostly to cheap, infantry-fired anti-tank missiles, in just three weeks. And it happened to ‘air superiority’, in the sense that it has been understood for the past 75 years, in Saudi Arabia last week.

Tanks ruled the battlefield from the German blitzkrieg of 1940 until 1973. Only more or better tanks could stop them. Tanks have got a lot more sophisticated since 1973, but so have the anti-tank weapons, which are a lot cheaper and therefore a lot more plentiful. There is no longer a single, simple equation for battlefield success.

Air superiority, the other main component of blitzkrieg, had a much longer run of success. The powers that could afford to design and build the most advanced combat aircraft controlled not only the sky but the land beneath it, and could batter weaker states into submission (NATO against Serbia, the US twice against Iraq, NATO again in Libya, etc.) with few casualties of their own.

Fast forward to September 2019 in Saudi Arabia. The oil-rich kingdom should be among the privileged, invulnerable few, for it has a very high-tech air force and the best air defences money can buy. It can also call on the immense power of the United States, which maintains military bases in a number of Gulf states and has promised to protect it. What could possibly go wrong?

What went wrong was a swarm of cheap drones and cruise missiles that the Saudis didn’t even see coming. According to the Houthi rebels in Yemenis, who claim to have launched them, there were at least ten Samad 3 drones (the Saudis say eighteen drones hit the Abqaiq oil processing site) and an undisclosed number of Qasif K-2 cruise missiles (the Saudis say four cruise missiles struck the Khurais facility).

The Saudis didn’t see them because they flew nap of the earth, so low they were hidden from Saudi radars. They were launched from three different sites, but timed to reach their targets simultaneously from three different angles. They took out half the oil-processing capability of the world’s second-biggest producer for at least some weeks – and the whole swarm of them only cost one or two million dollars.

That’s assuming they were built in low-wage Yemen. They’d cost twice that to build in Iran, and at least ten times as much in the United States. But that’s still pretty cheap when you consider that a single F-35 fighter costs $122 million. You get a very capable airplane for your money, and a couple of them could do equal damage to those oil processing facilities – but they wouldn’t do a much better job.

They could also get shot down, which would be a very large amount of money (plus maybe the pilots’ lives) down the drain. The drones and cruise missiles can also be shot down, of course, but they’re cheap, they have no pilots, and if there are enough of them, some are likely to get through. If they don’t get through today, send more tomorrow.

The Saudis made it extra-easy for the Houthis (or the Iranians, if you believe the Saudi-American version of the story) by not having any short-range air defences for their most important economic assets, or at least none facing in the right direction. But this is because Saudi Arabia doesn’t plan to do its own fighting in any confrontation with Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s defence budget ($67.6 billion last year) goes mostly on buying very expensive military equipment from the United States, but what it is really buying is American military support. In return for all that money, the Kingdom expects Americans to do the actual fighting for it, just as it hires Sudanese and Pakistanis to do the ground combat in its war in Yemen.

The Saudis shouldn’t count on that. Donald Trump knows nothing about foreign affairs or military strategy, but this is the sort of deal he has spent a lifetime imposing on others. He’ll make the sales, but he won’t deliver the services.

The big question that is finally going to be asked, in countries rich and poor, is why the air forces insist on buying ultra-expensive manned aircraft instead of flocks, swarms and fleets of small, cheap, disposable unmanned vehicles. The truth is that air forces are run by pilots, and they like to fly planes, but what happened in Saudi Arabia last week will finally give the civilian authorities arguments that the aviators cannot resist or ignore.

So the shift to primary reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for offensive action will get underway at last, and the result will be the democratisation of air power. Only rich countries with a mastery of high technology can own F-35s. Even the smallest, poorest country (and some non-state actors too) can afford to build or buy a few thousand drones and a couple of hundred basic cruise missiles.

Democratisation is a double-edged sword.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“The Saudis…services”)

Whodunnit?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed the Houthi claim that the Yemeni rebel group had carried out Saturday’s strike on two huge Saudi Arabian oil processing facilities. There was “no evidence” that the drones belonged to the Houthis, he said. Instead, he blamed Iran.

No surprise there. The way things are at the moment, if an incoming asteroid were about to strike the Earth, the United States would blame Iran. But there’s ‘no evidence’ that the drones came from Iran either. Pompeo is simply trading on the assumption that Yemenis are too ignorant to manage that sort of technology, so it must be Iran.

Saudi Arabia and the alliance of other autocratic Arab States that have been bombing Yemen since 2015 push the same line all the time. It goes down fairly well in the Kingdom, where most people look down on Yemenis for being poor and less well educated, but it isn’t actually true.

Within a year of the war’s start, the Yemenis began launching a few small ballistic missiles (with conventional warheads) back at Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis refused to believe they were doing it themselves. The Houthis, they implied, were too backward to upgrade the Yemeni air force’s old Soviet-made Scud missiles themselves. Iran must have helped them.

In fact, the Yemeni air force had Scud missiles for decades before the government collapsed in 2015, and technicians to service them. Some, maybe most of those technicians threw in their lot with the Houthis, and upgraded those Scuds by cutting them in half and inserting a larger fuel tank in the middle.

It changed their flight characteristic and made them very inaccurate, but it did extend their range enough to hit targets all over southern and eastern Saudi Arabia. And by mid-2017 the Houthis, who controlled most of Yemen, were making their own improved copies known as Burkan missiles.

The ‘Super-Scuds’ were more a morale booster than a war-winner for the Houthis, who live under a merciless daily bombardment from the air (7,290 documented civilian deaths so far). The current attacks on the Saudi oil facilities, if the Houthis’ claim is true, would just be another morale-booster, even though it has temporarily cut world oil production by around 5 percent.

But was it really the Houthis? At this point there is no clear evidence either way, but it could have been. They certainly have the motive, and they may have the technology. They have used small drones in previous air strikes, and there are bigger drones available commercially that could do the damage seen at the Saudi facilities.

The biggest currently available is the Guardian, a monster that can carry a payload of 200 kilos (more than 400 pounds). It’s made by Griff Aviation, a Norwegian company whose Lakeland factory in Florida is producing one Guardian a day and selling them to industrial, agricultural and military clients.

It would be quite a trick for the Houthis to acquire ten of them (which is how many drones they say they used in their attack), but stranger things have happened. Or maybe they did get their hands on some military drones, which would certainly be up to the job. Or maybe it was Iran, but nobody really knows yet.

One apparent flaw in the Houthi theory is that there are no civilian drones capable of flying the almost 800 km from Yemen to the Saudi targets, but that’s not really necessary. Most of the land around the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities is open desert, and launching the drones for 25-50 km away would escape detection unless the Saudis were actively anticipating such an attack.

Who would launch them? There are a million Yemenis resident in Saudi Arabia, plus 2-3 million Saudi citizens who suffer severe discrimination because they follow the Shia version of Islam. There are even Sunni Saudi citizens (mostly Islamists) who are sufficiently disaffected to attack the regime directly.

That’s a pretty large pool to fish in if you’re looking for local collaborators to smuggle the drones in and launch them – which is what the Houthis themselves say happened. In their statement claiming credit for the attacks, they express thanks for “co-operation with the honourable people inside the kingdom.”

None of this proves that it was the Houthis, or that it wasn’t the Iranians. It does leave the identity of the attackers up in the air, where it will remain until conclusive proof emerges one way or another (if it ever does). Mike Pompeo’s confident attribution of blame to Iran, later echoed by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, is just politics, not proof.

As Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted on Sunday, “having failed at max pressure (anti-Iran trade sanctions), Sec Pompeo’s turning to max deceit.” Fair comment, really. And we should be grateful that Donald Trump, for all his faults, is the grown-up in the house this time.

On Sunday Trump tweeted: “There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”

Trump doesn’t want a full-scale war with Iran, and neither does Saudi Arabia. It probably won’t happen.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 9. (“Within…them”; “It changed…missiles”; and “The biggest…clients”)

Israel Election 2019 (Part Two)

Binyamin Netanyahu’s work is almost done. If he wins Tuesday’s election and forms yet another government (he is now the longest-serving Israeli prime minister), he will put a stake through the heart of the ‘two-state solution’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was born in the 1993 Oslo peace accords. Hamas should send him a gold watch for long service.

Netanyahu and Hamas have always been what our Marxist friends used to call ‘objective allies’. That is to say, they hated each other, but they shared one overriding objective: to thwart the creation of a semi-independent Palestinian state based in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that had been envisaged in the Oslo deal.
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It was the Israeli left that made that deal, in the person of Yitzak Rabin, a war hero who thought he saw a chance for a permanent peace settlement. His Arab partner was Yassir Arafat, the terrorist-turned-statesman who led the secular Fatah organisation, the largest Palestinian group. Arafat too was ready for a compromise peace by 1993.

Both men, of course, faced bitter opposition at home. Arafat’s strongest critics were the Islamist fanatics of the Hamas Party. Rabin’s were the Israeli ultra-nationalist right, who included the Orthodox religious parties and most of the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories.

The Oslo deal started to collapse when an Israeli right-wing extremist assassinated Rabin in 1995. It was assumed at first that his foreign minister Shimon Peres, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Arafat, would win the ensuing election on a sympathy vote. Then Hamas staged three huge suicide bombings killing 58 Israelis in the three months before the 1996 Israeli election campaign.

Hamas’s goal was to radicalise Israelis and push them into the camp of the anti-Oslo nationalists, led by one Binyamin Netanyahu. It worked, Netanyahu formed a government – and there were no further bombings of comparable scale for five years afterwards.

Netanyahu was not in cahoots with Hamas, but as a former professional soldier he would certainly have understood their strategy. And as prime minister he did what they hoped: he successfully stalled on delivering any of the Israeli promises in the Oslo accords until he lost power in 1999.

It was ten years before Netanyahu came back into power in 2009, but the pattern was set. Only once, briefly, was there an Israeli government that tried to revive the ‘two-state’ solution, and since Netanyahu has been back it has been completely off the table.

In fact, there’s no risk any more even if he isn’t in power: the ‘two-state’ option is well and truly dead. Hamas would probably still prefer Netanyahu to any plausible alternative Israeli prime minister, but from their point of view, his work is done.

So what is this election in Israel about? Not very much, really.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its usual coalition partners, the extreme right and religious parties, won a majority in last April’s election, but he was unable to put a coalition together afterwards. One key party in his last coalition demanded that the large numbers of young Orthodox men studying for years at a time in religious seminaries must lose their automatic exemptions from military service.

Netanyahu couldn’t agree to that without losing the support of the religious parties, so he called another election instead. It may work: the last opinion poll legally permissible before the election predicted that the right-wing bloc would win a solid majority of 66 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset.

It is possible that Kahol Lavan, a centrist party led by former armed forces commander Benny Ganz, will win more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud Party and thereby gain the right to try to form a government. But it will probably not succeed, because the larger coalition of parties Ganz leads, the Blue and White Alliance (after the colours of the Israeli flag), will come up short: the polls say only 54 seats in the Knesset.

So Netanyahu will probably be prime minister again, even though he is facing fraud, bribery and corruption charges and may face pre-trial hearings within weeks. Netanyahu denies all charges and would not be legally required to step down unless he is convicted and all his appeals are rejected. That process could take years.

But still, how does he go on winning? He has all this legal baggage, his domestic performance is no better than fair – most Israelis feel their budgets are pretty stretched – and anyway you’d think they would be getting bored with the same old face after 13 years.

He does it, every time, by throwing a scare into them, and by simultaneously promising to expand Israel’s territory. This time, he presents himself as the only man who can keep the US on side against the allegedly mortal Iranian threat, warns that Israel’s Arab minority will ‘steal’ the election (by turning out to vote), and says he will annex the Jordan valley and the northern Dead Sea coast (one-third of the West Bank) as soon as he is elected.

He is Mr Security, ‘King Bibi’, and he knows all the tricks.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 13. (“Netanyahu…deal”; and “It is…Knesset”)

Climate – Jonathan Sees the Light

Jonathan Franzen has finally seen the light. Unfortunately, it has blinded him.

The distinguished American novelist and essayist has a piece in the current issue of The New Yorker entitled ‘What If We Stopped Pretending?’ Stop pretending that the climate apocalypse is not going to sweep us all away, he means. As he writes: “to prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.”

It’s very elegant, philosophical – Marcus Aurelius for beginners. Yes, we have wasted thirty years and not cut our global emissions at all. Yes, we are heading for the ‘never exceed’ average global temperature of +2̊C. And yes, that means there will be famines, huge waves of climate refugees, a lot of killing at borders – and then it will get really serious.

So far I’m with Franzen all the way. In fact, I know exactly how he feels, because I got there about a dozen years ago and I felt awful.

I had spent a year and a half interviewing everybody you ever heard of in the climate field (and many you haven’t) for a book I was doing,* and at the end of it I had a kind of double vision. Not a physical double vision, of course, but overlaid on current reality I could sort of see the hell that was coming.

That sort of thing can ruin your breakfast, so I manfully set the visions aside and got on with my life. Maybe Franzen will get over it too, eventually, but at the moment he thinks we’re doomed, and all we can do is little things to slow the apocalypse down a bit, and relish the brief time we have left.

“It’s fine to struggle against the constraints of human nature, hoping to mitigate the worst of what’s to come,” he writes, “but it’s just as important to fight smaller, more local battles that you have some realistic hope of winning. Keep…trying to save what you love specifically—a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble—and take heart in your small successes.”

We really shouldn’t be surprised that he thinks like this. Franzen’s Wikipedi entry (I take my research seriously) say that he was heavily influenced by Franz Kafka and Albert Camus, so stylish despair is his default setting. But it’s not time yet to give up on the big things, like survival.

First of all, change your perspective and stop deploring the human race’s failings. A million years ago, our ancestors were clever apes. Even ten thousand years ago, they were all hunter-gatherers who had little time or motive to worry about the longer term. Don’t write us off because we’re still not very good at it.

Now we’re in really deep trouble, and all our evolutionary baggage means that we’re still having difficulty in acting to avoid disasters that are only a decade or two ahead. We may be able to rise above it when the crisis becomes present and palpable, but the procrastination, the disbelief and the delays were inevitable.

In fact, it’s a safe bet that if there are other intelligent species who have recently built high-energy civilisations – and there probably are, given 400 billion stars and two or three times as many planets in this galaxy alone – then they will doubtless be facing similar planetary crises, and having to deal with evolutionary baggage of their own. Any intelligent species is bound to have knuckle-dragging ancestors up its evolutionary tree.

So here we are, and it’s going to be tricky. We are almost certainly going to crash through 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere in less than fifteen years, which in the natural course of events would take us up through +2̊C about a decade later. Welcome to the climate apocalypse.

Unlike Jonathan Franzen I do talk to climate scientists, and it’s hard to get them to say this on the record. They don’t want to sow panic. But if you back them up against a wall and threaten them with a knife, most will admit they think going beyond 450 ppm is nearly inevitable now – mainly because human politics can’t change fast enough to stop it.

But what the climate scientists all know, and some think might save us, is that 450 ppm and +2̊C are not indissolubly linked. What we need is more time, and it is theoretically possible to hold the global temperature down while we work frantically first to get our emissions down, then eliminate them entirely, and finally draw down the excess CO2 that we have already put into the atmosphere.

There are a number of potential methods for doing this, all of them controversial. The leading proposal at the moment is injecting sulfur dioxide gas into the stratosphere. (No living things up there.) That would reflect a small portion of incoming sunlight and keep the planet below +2̊C and its attendant calamities for the time we need.

There are no safe and painless courses left, but there are still choices to be made. The game is not over.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“It’s…successes”; and “In fact…tree”)

*The book is called ‘Climate Wars’, it’s still in print (at least in English), and unfortunately almost every word in it is still true.