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*A guest post by STRATFOR Latin America Analyst Karen Hooper

Commander of US Southern Command General Douglas Fraser visited Guatemala Nov. 16-17, and met with outgoing Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom, and President-elect Otto Perez Molina. The visit comes at a critical juncture for Guatemala. Perez Molina will be inaugurated Jan. 14, and has over the past month given numerous indications that among Guatemala’s numerous challenges, he intends to tackle violence and organized crime, head-on. The former general has said he intends to use Guatemala’s elite military forces, Los Kaibiles, to challenge the threat of drug traffickers. The issue is particularly pertinent now, as Mexican drug cartels, including clear signals from the notoriously violent Los Zetas cartel that it not only maintains significant influence in areas of Guatemala but that it will not hesitate to brutalize civilians to maintain that influence.

Guatemala is of course not alone in these concerns. As Mexico’s importance as a transshipment point for cocaine headed north to the United States consumer market from South America has grown, so too has the land route over Central America. Drug smugglers utilize a diverse collection of water and aircraft to bypass geographic and law enforcement impediments. Honduras has become a major offloading point for cocaine that is then moved across the loosely guarded Honduran-Guatemalan border, through Guatemala and into Mexico. Violence in these countries has worsened alongside the rise in drug trafficking, and the ‘northern triangle’ countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala now have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

Guatemala as a particularly important player in this issue, not only for its history as a leader in Central America, but also for its strategic border with Mexico, which spans the isthmus and is a critical chokepoint for smugglers traveling north. Guatemala has a complex and competitive set of native criminal organizations, many of which are organized around tight-knit family units. The Sinaloa and Los Zetas cartels are both known to have relationships with Guatemalan organized crime, but the lines of communication and their exact agreements are unclear.

Less murky, however, is that Los Zetas are willing to use the same levels of violence in Guatemala to coerce loyalty as they have used in Mexico. Though both Sinaloa and Los Zetas still need Guatemalan groups to access high-level Guatemalan political connections, Los Zetas have taken a particularly aggressive tack in seeking direct control over more territory in Guatemala. The first indication of serious Los Zetas involvement in Guatemala occurred in March 2008 when Leon crime family boss Juan Leon Ardon, alias “El Juancho,” his brother Hector Enrique Leon Chacon and nine associates all died in a gunbattle with Los Zetas, who at the time still worked for the Gulf cartel. The Zetas most flagrant use of force occurred in the May 2011 massacre and mutilation of 27 peasants in Peten, Guatemala.

In addition to ramping up relationships with powerful political, criminal and economic players, Sinaloa and Los Zetas have established relationships with Central American street gangs. Though these relationships are relatively limited to low-level street deals, the prevalence of MS-13 and Calle 18 in the Northern Triangle states and their extreme violence means that this relationship has extremely negative implications for stability in Central America.

The United States has long played an important, complex role in Latin America. At this point, the region has been allocated limited direct security and development aid, currently totalling $361.5 million for fiscal years 2008-2011 through the Merida Initiative and the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). The Obama administration has requested another $100 million for CARSI. Of this allocated funding, however, only 18 percent has been dispersed due to failures in institutional cooperation and efficiency.

Central America has no short-term escape from being at the geographical center of the drug trade and from the associated violence. While the drug trade brings huge amounts of cash (admittedly on the black market) into exceedingly capital-poor countries, it also brings extreme violence. The U.S. “war on drugs” pits the Guatemalan elite’s political and financial interests against their need to retain a positive relationship with the United States.

Alone, weak Central American governments — and Guatemala is far weaker than Mexico — do not stand much of a chance against these drug cartels. Their only option if left to their own devices is to placate American and Mexican demands by making a limited show of interdiction efforts while in large part declining to confront these violent transnational organizations — if not reaching an outright accommodation. Perez Molina has issued an invitation to the United States to help interdict the flow of narcotics — one that represents an opportunity to do so on more politically favorable and geographically narrow terrain.

Posted by nhughes in Foreign Policy | 4 Comments

Whether we can afford it or not certainly remains an open question. But trials aboard the USS Wasp of the F-35B (BF-02) have begun. (You’ll have to forgive Lockheed the rock music and video montage.)

Posted by nhughes in Marine Corps, Navy | 3 Comments

Romanian President Traian Basescu announced Thursday that he plans to sign an agreement with the United States committing Washington to deploy a land-based variant (still in development) of the successful Aegis/SM-3 ballistic missile defense (BMD) system and American troops on Romanian soil. While it happened to be the same day that the first test of the SM-3 Block IB failed (these things do happen after all), many Central European countries’ interest in the new ‘European Phased Adaptive Approach’ remain unabated.

This is because the Central Europeans quite frankly don’t care at all about BMD. Romania could be hosting a component of AFRICOM’s headquarters and land-locked Czech Republic a Navy riverine squadron for all they cared. They care about the American security commitment, and the commitment the deployment of American military hardware and American military personnel that BMD installations entail.

But while Romania is enthusiastic, the Czechs, having been burned in the previous proposal, are more skeptical. Slated to receive a fixed X-band radar alongside Poland-based ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) interceptors (already deployed in Alaska and California, though with a spottier track record) under the George W. Bush administration, the scheme was dropped amidst concerted Russian opposition in 2009. The Czechs now both want a bigger chunk of the new scheme yet remain wary of another American reversal.

If the land-based variant of the Aegis/SM-3 system can be more quickly (and cheaply) emplaced and displaced than GMD, that will provide the U.S. with additional flexibility. And though the scheme for the European Phased Adaptive Approach has been sketched out, it retains considerable malleability.

This would all be good news for the American effort to protect the continental United States from (yet to exist) Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with (yet to exist) miniaturized, hardened nuclear warheads in a hypothetical scenario where Tehran would choose to launch a nuclear attack on the United States from its own soil.

But ‘phased’ and ‘adaptive’ are the last things America’s Central European allies want. Especially after the withdrawal of the previous plan and the lack of a response to the Russian invasion and occupation of South Ossetia, these countries hunger now for assurances of the strength, durability and credibility of the American security guarantee (one that is, incidentally, hurting on both sides of Eurasia). And the concern that this guarantee is insufficient has already prompted an initiative to form of an independent battlegroup among Central European countries.

It is a good thing that the pursuit of BMD technology is here to stay. But a weapon system is not an end in and of itself, and its deployment is both a military and a political phenomenon. The choices that Washington makes in the actual emplacement of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (a phrase that could only be coined in Washington) — particularly when countries like Russia have made it politically difficult and inconvenient to pursue specific paths — will be watched closely in capitals from Tallinn to Tbilisi.

Posted by nhughes in Foreign Policy | 2 Comments

how low can we go

August 2011


Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a whole lot of talk about ‘getting to zero’ at U.S. Strategic Command’s Deterrence Symposium in Omaha, Nebraska (from which, I might point out, the extensive trade show exhibit floor was completely — and refreshingly — absent; the event was entirely panel discussions and keynote addresses). But some interesting points were made by panelists on the subject of what happens next now that the New START treaty has been signed, ratified and gone into effect. One of the most salient points made by the panel was that the focus on numerical parity with the Russians might be becoming increasingly anachronistic in terms of the global strategic balance.

Certainly, the continued maintenance of strategic stability with Moscow is important. The arms control model of verifiable reductions, transparency and confidence building has proven to be productive and fruitful over the years. But as one panelist observed, what is important about the strategic balance is its stability, its transparency and the confidence building it affords — the comfort each side has that its nuclear arsenal is sufficient to guarantee its national interests. Yet those interests are very different. The Russians have come to rely increasingly heavily on tactical nuclear weapons for territorial defense scenarios and will necessarily and not without cause remain deeply uneasy with the maturation and fielding of more advanced and mobile American ballistic missile defenses. The United States, meanwhile, not only guarantees its own national interest with its nuclear arsenal but has extended that nuclear guarantee to some 30 other countries — and while the cartel war in Mexico is concerning, has few of the territorial integrity concerns of Moscow.

The decisions we make now about the size and composition of our nuclear arsenal will have direct bearing on our strategic posture and strategic options later in this century. There is broad agreement that investment in the intellectual capital and infrastructure that underlies our nuclear enterprise is warranted. But as the operationally deployed size of the American — and particularly Russian — arsenals fall, the reality that almost every other nuclear arsenal in the world (the legacy arsenals of the United Kingdom and France excepted) is actually growing changes the equation. For a long time, combined U.S.-Soviet and then U.S.-Russian arsenals left the rest of the world’s nuclear arms effectively “a rounding error,” as one panelist observed. But the panel also observed that this is increasingly untrue. China in particular is stuck with the problem that what constitutes a “minimal means of reprisal” will change as BMD capabilities expand and improve. Its arsenal continues to grow and improve. The proliferation of ballistic missile technology in the past several decades and the failure of the international community to prevent the proliferation of nuclear means that while the bilateral U.S.-Russian nuclear balance remains perhaps the foremost question, it also remains the most settled and stable balance. Enormous unknowns and other potential nuclear-armed competitors — or, perhaps more problematically, combinations thereof — must also be considered.

These days in the U.S., the discussion about nuclear weapons is usually about economy: what is the minimum sufficient arsenal and how cheaply can we maintain it? Nuclear weapons have proven to be more of a political and diplomatic tool than a military one in any operational sense, and there are certainly more operationally useful investments that we can and should be making. But the inputs of the current fiscal climate, the inertia of the arms control agenda and the continued political lip service paid to the fantasy of ‘getting to zero’ all push the American arsenal in the same direction. The affordability of the SSBN(X) of paramount concern and the idea of a compromise modified Virginia SSN-based design gaining traction, there are also questions of how much capacity we will actually have to expand the size of the arsenal as the global nuclear balance continues to evolve.

The U.S. has moved towards more flexible and politically viable means of deterrence to supplement the nuclear arsenal. And certainly, capabilities like a viable and affordable Conventional Prompt Global Strike system that can be fielded in numbers would factor into the equation. But is concern about the size of the arsenal also dated? The limitations of nuclear deterrence have certainly been manifest since the advent of the atomic bomb. Is the arsenal at or about its current size worth the cost? Or will the nuclear-armed challenges of the 21st century be better met by other means?


Don’t cry for me…

July 2011


The Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida this morning, marking the safe completion of the final flight of the three decade program. There is no viable replacement for U.S. manned access to space (though there are several potentially promising commercial efforts underway), so U.S. astronauts and other crew members aboard the International Space Station (ISS) will be solely reliant upon Russian Soyuz capsules for the foreseeable future.

For those that remember the status of American space efforts — military, intelligence and civilian — at the end of the Reagan era, it is hardly an unfair question to ask ‘what went wrong’? I had the opportunity to ask representatives of the space policy arm of each administration since Carter that very question a few months back and one resounding theme involved the shuttle itself.

A reusable, manned space launch vehicle was a promising objective, and there is no doubt that the shuttle program made a significant contribution to manned space flight. Many brave men and women served aboard the five operational orbiters. Fourteen died and two orbiters were lost. Raising issues with the shuttle program on the day of its retirement is not to tarnish valiant memories but it is essential to understand the full impact of the program.

Almost from the start, it seems, the shuttle program over-promised. It proved too expensive and complex to achieve the kinds of regeneration rates and economies of scale that had been used to justify the up-front investment in the first place. Yet it proved impossible to cancel — or even fund a replacement program while it continued to be funded. And at the end of the day, as one of the administration representatives pointed out, if you’re trying to commit now — today — to the way you’re going to be getting to low earth orbit in 30 years, you’re approaching the problem fundamentally wrong.

The shuttle is ultimately an example of how we cannot approach spaceflight moving forward. One, exquisite system cannot be allowed to consume so much of the available resources that an alternative cannot be devised, funded, developed and fielded at the same time as existing operations are funded. The expense of sustaining the ISS is noteworthy here.

All this matters to the U.S. military because a robust commercial space sector is part of the foundation of national security space. Right now, that commercial sector is attempting to rejuvenate itself after two decades of decline — decline for which it has itself to blame, decline for which the government bureaucracy is to blame and decline for which the requirements and acquisition process is to blame. For too long, the shuttle program has been a drain on the national space endeavor, has entailed too great an opportunity cost and has acted as a weight on forward progress.

So as we mark the end of the shuttle era, the question is not just how we get ourselves back into space. If we should, we need to make that case to the American people and allocate money despite the period of fiscal austerity. And then we need to get there in a more agile and flexible way and plot a course that is fundamentally different from the shuttle, ISS and now-defunct Constellation programs.

The U.S. Navy has conducted exercises with both the Armed Forces of the Philippines Navy and the Vietnam People’s Navy in recent weeks. The United States also diplomatically emphasized its continued military commitment to the Philippines, a formal ally.

The previously-scheduled exercises come at a time of intensifying regional tensions in the South China Sea over territorial disputes. Galrahn has already pointed out the mounting potential for an incident.

But there is also the question of not whether the U.S. will continue to conduct routine exercises but how it will respond in a crisis. In this, the American position remains deliberately ambiguous — specifically with the key issue of territorial disputes, in which the U.S. has no official position but insists that it supports its ally. But while this ambiguity certainly has utility, it does open the question of what the regional perception of the American security guarantee is and will be in the years ahead.

When the Republic of Korea Navy corvette ChonAn was sunk in 2010 by what was almost certainly a North Korean torpedo, Seoul wanted and expected the rapid deployment of the USS George Washington (CVN 73) to the Yellow Sea as a demonstration of the American commitment. This was something that took time and that the United States hesitated to do because of the implications for U.S.-Chinese relations. Any incident in the South China Sea will probably not be as clear cut as the sinking of the ChonAn and it will more directly involve China. And confronting China entails significant economic implications at a particularly sensitive time economically.

So the question is how does the U.S. balance short-term expediencies and longer-term interests? Is it properly aware of and properly weighing those longer-term interests? Not that the U.S. should have necessarily played the Russian invasion of South Ossetia in 2008 any differently (though it was a brilliant maneuver on the part of the Russians), but the perception of the value and credibility of the American security guarantee is certainly in need of some quality maintenance. How aware is the U.S. that China, like Russia before it, will be seeking to erode the regional perception of that value and credibility, particularly as the competition in the South China Sea continues to heat up? And how prepared is it to prioritize rebuilding that value and credibility at a time when there are many competing and nearer-term demands?

Web 2.0 and social media are messy. Tweets are rarely grammatically correct. Blog posts are neither as polished nor as tight as an edited article in a newspaper or magazine that went through multiple drafts. The sheer volume of traffic and content makes the sort of editorial oversight that print media came to expect before the advent of online content impossible. The issue of control is particularly important here. A publisher has complete control over what goes into print. Even letters to the editor and op-ed articles are screened, selected and often edited so that what their readership sees is known, consistent and approved prior to publication.

Social media is the opposite of control. Anyone with internet access can have a voice. It is chaos. But it is not without its shape and form. Already, the innumerable voices on the web have mostly coalesced into a sort of white background noise. It is there, and a lot of it is inane. But even search engines are getting better at sorting through it for real and meaningful content. And ultimately, the combination of reputation, prestige and what one is interested in helps groups of participants coalesce and interact.

This blog is what it is because of those who comment, who hold everyone and everything on the blog to a higher standard, call people out when writing gets sloppy and will under no circumstances tolerate sloppy reasoning or sloppy thinking. It is also a place where those who comment bring enormous expertise to the table and enrich the discussion. It is in a very real sense a forum – a forum that the founders of this Institute may not have been able to conceive of but would probably be pretty impressed with.

And that’s the thing about Web 2.0 and social media. For the first hundred and twenty years or so of the Institute, ‘forum’ meant a print periodical. Reading and contributing to Proceedings was the limit of communication technology in terms of intellectual interaction for a large, dispersed group. But the mission of the Institute is to provide a forum and to disseminate and advance knowledge — not publish a magazine.

The Mission of the Institute is to provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense. [emphasis added]

This isn’t to knock Proceedings and it should continue to be the flagship publication of the Institute. It has earned its reputation. But a monthly periodical isn’t going to cut it as a forum in the 21st century, particularly for the very individuals that are supposed to be at the heart of the Institute’s ‘tribe’ — active, serving young Naval, Marine and Coast Guard officers and enlisted. We’re going to have to do much better and make some tough choices if we hope to live up to the spirit of the mission statement we have all so ardently defended.

The last decade has seen the most phenomenal explosion of means of interactivity. For an institution that was the product of interaction and founded explicitly to provide a forum, this should be not a time of crisis or decay but a time of enormous excitement and possibility. For the first time in the history of the Institute, the means available to fulfill the mission of providing a forum have not just grown; they have exploded.

Society and industry are still grappling with what, if anything, phenomena like Twitter might actually be useful for. This is the dawn of a new era, not one in its maturity. It should be a time of experimentation (and experimentation entails failures – the trick is designing the experiment to teach you something while not over-committing resources to it until it has proven viable) to understand which elements of this explosion might have applicability and add value to our ongoing endeavor to live up to the mission set out before us. But the success of this blog should be seen as a proof of concept and as an example of what is possible.

The Institute has limited resources, and the sacrifices employees of the Institute have made are a testament to that. But efforts to build on the success of this blog warrant more priority, focus and resources. More young, information technology and social media expertise is required to formulate experiments, identify promising avenues and push efforts forward. This will not be free (though, like the blog, much can be achieved once the right structures and oversight are in place), and will require sacrifices, compromises and some reallocation of resources.

But we are behind the curve and our young active duty membership deserves and demands better.

Posted by nhughes in Cyber, Policy | 6 Comments

we did that already

May 2011


Discussions of how the Pentagon can become a better consumer and a more responsible custodian of taxpayer money are – not without cause – a common refrain these days. So it isn’t really surprising when one comes upon yet another bureaucratic or institutional failing within DoD. A conference on Unmanned Systems hosted by the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University immediately began hitting on a series of issues right with the first panel. This was a panel discussion that spent time on a refreshingly short and simple word: reuse:

  • Industry has continued to develop platform-specific software packages essentially from the ground-up – and is certainly happy to continue to charge DoD for the favor.
  • DoD spends money on the right to use and reuse software and data associated with the systems that it buys. But does it know and understand those rights? Either way, as a matter of practice, it does not exercise them enough and should be.
  • Program managers are not incentivized to expend much effort on investigating potential opportunities to reuse software that has already been developed.
  • DoD spends money on and completes research and development. But those research and development programs, particularly those with significant classified aspects, have a way of disappearing once they get completed in a file drawer and on a server somewhere. Often there is little more than a place-holder webpage for the initial scope of the program at the outset. Not only are the products of or lessons learned from the programs inaccessible, but their very existence is known far more narrowly than their applicability. As a result, the products and lessons of that research are often not made part of the requirements writing process and later elements of programmatic and acquisition efforts.

While DoD funds cutting-edge technology it has proven to be all too often a lagging or late adaptor of new technology. We’re seeing a lot of powerpoint slides these days with common and open architectures. But how much progress has there really been in this regard? How has the fielding of the Aegis open architecture been going? Have we bought into the right concept and if we have, how are we really doing in terms of implementation?


The Subtext

May 2011


An interesting subtext pervaded much of the USNI-sponsored Joint Warfighting Conference at Virginia Beach. ADM Harvey spoke about the strains the demands of the Combatant Commands were placing on his service. Former Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne spoke about the importance of fifth generation fighters, both the F-35 and F-22 (his position on the F-22 contributed heavily to his replacement by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates). And GEN Ray Odierno emphasized the importance of retaining a balanced force and the trajectory of current strategic trends (i.e. ‘fourth generation’ warfare or whatever you want to call it with the unstated implication that maintaining the Army at close to its current size is essential). This is not to sum up much broader addresses in a sentence. But it was particularly striking how a subtext of a defense of each service’s role and importance was, in one way or another, to be found in so many of the addresses delivered at a conference about jointness.

ADM Harvey emphasized the balance to be struck between the demands of the Combatant Commands and the need for a more sustainable deployment tempo and concept of operations for the fleet. At the end of the day, everyone is on the same team and this subtext of defensiveness is simply a symptom.

As during the Interwar period and the marginalization of tank development, any time the budget ax looms, entrenched interests dig in their heels and attempt to ensure that the ax falls as lightly as possible on them. This is not an attack on individuals or specific warfare specialties, it is an institutional reaction by long serving and patriotic servicemen and women that have spent their careers mastering a discipline of warfare that they understandably and justifiably believe to be critical to national security.

But as one panelist in a separate discussion argued (though in another context), ‘balance’ is a cop out — a way to cut from everything without making real choices where we try to continue to do everything but as a result will find ourselves doing less, less well and in fewer places. Notably, the exception to this has been the discussion of network security — ‘cyber’. Both the address by LTGEN Robert Schmidle, Jr., Deputy Commander U.S. Cyber Command and the subsequent panel discussion, there seems to be almost no discussion of service-specific considerations or efforts, particularly when it comes to defensive efforts and day-to-day network operations. There seems to be broad and strong consensus on the need for this (perhaps there are points of contention here that simply did not come to the surface at the conference, but it certainly made for a stark counterpoint).

But ultimately, while the budget ax can be used to justify and force through fundamental changes, it can also make fundamental change more difficult, particularly in terms of R&D and next-generation capabilities. On the one hand, we have examples of a phenomenally and tightly integrated and effective joint team resident in the Joint Special Operations Command and elsewhere. But on the other, even at a conference on jointness, we can also see lines being drawn in anticipation of further fiscal cuts at the Pentagon that bode ill for preparing for future conflict. And we would do well to remember that it was this sort of budgetary environment that led the U.S. Army to appoint a horse cavalryman as the head of the cavalry (which, along with the infantry, included tanks in a ‘supporting’ role) in 1939.

The Commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, ADM John C. Harvey, Jr., spoke at the USNI-sponsored Joint Warfighting Conference in Virginia Beach. He used the Navy’s recent experience with the joint force as a way to emphasize that the joint force is only as strong as the foundation upon which it is built: the strength and capabilities of the individual service branches. But he also spoke about the Navy’s recent experience to demonstrate a the challenge of balancing meeting Combatant Commander’s needs with ensuring the readiness of the force.

That the U.S. Navy has essentially been at a wartime tempo of operations for years now is not new. The price of that tempo of operations is known to be burning through the service life of platforms faster than anticipated, missed maintenance and proficiency training in core competencies. An average of some 50 ships a year cross redlines in order to meet operational demands. The Admiral made a point of the fact that the Fleet Response Plan’s intention of improving operational availability and surge capacity had been successful, but that the Combatant Commands began to gobble up not just the expanded availability but the surge capacity intended for a major wartime scenario. His point was to emphasize the need institutionally to balance the needs of the joint force with the imperative of the naval service to sustain the fleet for the long term, especially since there is no prospect of the navy having extra room in its shipbuilding budget to replace existing platforms early.

Part of this is institutional. Part of this is being more honest with ourselves and the Combatant Commands about what we can and cannot provide without crossing redlines that should be respected short of major wartime scenarios. But with no prospect in the near future of a reduction in demands by the Combatant Commands, part of the solution must also be how the Navy fulfills operational requirements.

In this context, I caught a news article reiterating the intention to move a carrier to Mayport, Florida by 2019 at the cost of more than half a billion dollars (if things happen on time and on budget). As if our problem is the strategic dispersal of the fleet when we already have carriers home ported at four different locations (counting the forward-deployed USS George Washington in Yokosuka, Japan). I’m not a sailor, but I have often wondered why there has not been more investment in overseas facilities (I tend to think about Australia in particular in this context) to expand the quantity of forward deployed assets. The concept of operations for the Littoral Combat Ship remains to be proven but the rotation of crews and lower-level maintenance being conducted at forward facilities (or perhaps by tenders) seems something worth revisiting on a wider scale.

Posted by nhughes in Navy | 4 Comments
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