A big danger with having sophisticated military systems is that you run the risk of losing them if you use them.
That appears to be the case with the U.S. Air Force RQ-170 Sentinel, the remotely operated reconnaissance aircraft that was recently lost over Iran. The stealthy aircraft, built by Lockheed Martin, entered service about a decade ago and has seen duty over hot spots worldwide since.
The United States has been using manned and unmanned aircraft for this mission for decades; the RQ-170 is only the latest that allows the United States to see into denied airspace.
The loss of any advanced aircraft poses special risks because it exposes its materials and technologies to enemy scientists and engineers. Now that the Iranians have the Sentinel - especially since it appears to have come into their possession largely intact - it's only a matter of time before China, North Korea and others learn about the UAV's stealth coatings, airframe structures and materials, sensors and electronic components, flight controls and more.
The Air Force is trying to learn as much as possible from the loss, such as why the plane lost signal and how it came to be recovered in one piece.
But more important, it must learn how to guard against such a dangerous loss of technology in the future. Such aircraft must be fitted with physical and electronic self-destruct mechanisms that will obliterate anything of interest as soon as it falls into enemy hands.
Last, the inherent value of having the kind of technology that makes an RQ-170 possible is a critical U.S. advantage in warfare. As defense budgets decline, continuing robust investment in advanced stealth, sensor and reconnaissance technologies is crucial to maintaining America's strategic and tactical advantages.
As the past three years have shown, President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, don't often see eye-to-eye on foreign policy. On at least one issue, however, the two appear to be in full agreement. Both have stated clearly and repeatedly that the radical, revolutionary regime that rules Iran must not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons.
And yet, neither the current president nor the previous one made serious headway on this most serious of national security challenges.
The time to do so is running out. As the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency report makes painfully clear, Iran is perilously close to crossing the nuclear threshold, and its intentions are anything but peaceful. The U.S. desperately needs a strategy to keep the fingers of Iran's ayatollahs off the nuclear trigger. For a nuclear-armed Iran - oil-rich, bellicose and ambitious - would change the 21st century in ways we can only begin to imagine.
Those who don't believe we can stop Iran from crossing the nuclear Rubicon, as well as those who minimize the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran, have taken to talking about "containment." But the clerical regime that rules Tehran will not be as easy to keep in a box as was the Soviet Union.
The leaders of the Soviet empire may have been evil, but they were not irrational. As a result, they chose to abide by the "balance of terror" that emerged over time with the U.S., backing away from thermonuclear confrontation even as they competed with America for primacy in the political theaters of Latin America, Africa and beyond.
Whether Iran will be willing to honor such a bargain is very much an open question. At least one segment of the Iranian leadership ascribes to a radical revisionist (even apocalyptic) world-view, one which requires and embraces confrontation with the West.
And while Iran's clerical army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, casts a growing shadow over politics within the Islamic Republic, recent provocations, such as the botched attempt to assassinate Saudi Arabia's envoy to the U.S. in Washington, suggest the Guards themselves are anything but risk averse.
All of this implies that we will be forced to rely on more than deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction to contain Iran. We also will need to make it as difficult as possible for the Iranians to use nuclear weapons, or even to credibly threaten to do so.
This can only be achieved by developing, as an integral component of a containment regime, a comprehensive missile defense system composed of space-based, sea-based and land-based defenses. Such a system would make it doubtful, if not impossible, for Iran to successfully fire a missile against the American homeland, American troops abroad or America's allies and be confident that the weapon would reach its intended victims.
Fortunately, the U.S. has the ability to defend against this threat. Since at least the early 1990s, America has possessed the technological know-how to erect a comprehensive national defense against enemy ballistic missiles in all phases of flight. But for just as long, we have lacked the political will to do so.
Today, the state of affairs is much the same. The four-phase missile defense plan unveiled by the White House in September 2009 has a good deal to commend it, including major investments in sea-based defenses and the protection of allies abroad.
But it also suffers from potentially fatal deficiencies, chief among them the fact that it mortgages defense of the U.S. homeland until 2016 or later, when Obama will no longer be in office, even if he wins re-election next November. By doing so, it leaves the U.S. a provocatively weak and inviting target to adversaries who seek to do us harm, Iran chief among them.
Policymakers in Washington are hotly debating what, exactly, should be done to thwart the Islamic Republic and its stubborn quest for a nuclear capability. As they do, they should focus on missile defense as part of the logical answer. Anyone who seriously favors containment must also seriously favor comprehensive missile defense as a way of ensuring that Tehran's opportunities for aggression are limited. But others should favor this course of action as well.
Of course, it would be best to stop Iran's drive for nuclear weapons or to see the current regime replaced by one less bellicose. And it would be good to slow Iran's drive to nuclear weapons for as long as possible. But should all else fail, contingency plans must be in place to better protect Americans from the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism, which is now on the verge of acquiring the world's most dangerous weapons. America has the means to defend itself from Iranian nuclear missiles; it just needs to make such a plan a reality.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council. Clifford May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Both are members of the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense.
The fishing dhow Al Molai looks like hundreds of similar craft plying the waters of the Arabian Sea.
A BOARDING TEAM from the destroyer Kidd approaches the dhow Al Molai to free a group of Iranian sailors held hostage by pirates (U.S. Navy)
For about six weeks, the fishing boat moved around attracting little attention, its average appearance masking evil intentions.
The picture of innocence began to change Jan. 5.In reality, the vessel and its crew of Iranian sailors was being held hostage by pirates. The Al Molai became a mother ship for smaller boats apparently carrying Somalis bent on attacking merchant ships.
The end of the Al Molai's pirate career began when the Bahamas-registered cargo ship Sunrise issued a distress call around 8:30 a.m. A group of suspected pirates in a small, 15-foot open skiff was, according to the master of the Sunrise, attacking his ship.
The nearby U.S. aircraft carrier John C. Stennis heard the radio call and dispatched the escorting cruiser Mobile Bay to move in. When an MH-60S helicopter from Helicopter Anti-submarine Squadron 8, Detachment 1 operating from the cruiser approached, the six people aboard the skiff tossed a number of objects in the water.
"We suspected the objects to be RPGs [rocket-propelled grenade launchers] and rifles," Rear Adm. Craig Faller, commander of the John C. Stennis carrier strike group, told reporters during a conference call from his flagship on Jan. 6.
According to Faller, the suspected pirates surrendered to the helicopter. The cruiser moved in and sent over a boarding team, but no direct evidence was found to hold the Somalis. Despite being found about 175 miles at sea, southeast of Muscat, Oman, the skiff's sailors feigned innocence.
"They told us they were operating in the area for fun," Faller said. "We didn't think so."
Released, the suspected pirates set off on a course for an unknown destination. The helicopter followed at a distance. Soon, the small boat approached an Iranian-flagged dhow. The destroyer Kidd, patrolling in the region against pirates since mid-November, was vectored in, and its embarked MH-60R helicopter from Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 71, Detachment 3, took over from the Mobile Bay's helo.
Asked by reporters on the conference call if it was clear it a pirate situation was at hand, Cmdr. Jennifer Ellinger, the destroyer's commanding officer, was confident.
"Yes, definitely," she said.
The helicopters "observed there were Middle Eastern as well as Somalis on board the craft," Ellinger said. "But when we talked bridge-to-bridge they indicated they were Iranian and there were no foreigners aboard, which we knew not to be true," she said.
The dhow's master spoke to the Americans over the radio in Urdu, a language widely spoken in Pakistan. The pirates were unable to follow along, but an Urdu-speaker aboard the Kidd had no trouble translating.
"When we talked to the master, it was clear he was under duress," Ellinger said. "He said they were physically abused, they were scared. They invited us to come over. We reassured them that we would be on the way."
According to Ellinger, the master told the pirates the Americans were coming on board and they knew they were there.
"He convinced them to surrender," she said.
The destroyer drew up to the dhow with guns manned and ready. "Basically it was a forceful approach," Ellinger said. "We asked them all to come topside and surrender their weapons."
The pirates put down their weapons but then tried to hide. When the American boarding team arrived, the master helpfully pointed out all the hiding places, and 15 suspected pirates were taken into custody without any shots being fired.
The 13 freed Iranian fishermen were ecstatic.
"We brought food and meals," Ellinger said. "They had no refrigerator, it was broken. They were relying on fishing to get food, although the pirates had some fruit and provisions."
The Iranian sailors "were extremely grateful," Ellinger said. "Their morale continued to increase as we removed the Somali pirates."
The pirates were transferred on Jan. 6 to the Stennis, where they were still being held on Jan. 7.
"The pirates are under our custody and evidence is being gathered," Faller said. "This will be referred to the interagency in the U.S. to determine what will occur."
The pirates would be treated appropriately, Faller told reporters. "As bad as they are, they deserve humane treatment like any person."
Provisioned with food and wearing Kidd ball caps, the Iranians sailed off to return to their home port.
UNAWARE OF CONTROVERSY
Faller said neither the Iranian fishermen nor the pirates seemed to have any awareness of the recent tensions between Iran and the U.S. over transits of the Strait of Hormuz, the passageway between the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.
Shortly after the Stennis left the Gulf earlier this week, Iran's Army chief threatened the U.S. Navy and declared that the carrier would not be allowed back in. The threat was issued at the conclusion of a major 10-day Iranian naval exercise, and as new economic sanctions were slapped on Iran by the U.S. and other Western nations.
Despite the heated rhetoric from Tehran, the U.S. has sought to downplay the situation. Asked if the U.S. was exploiting the rescue of the Iranian sailors for publicity reasons, Faller was adamant.
"No sir. We didn't have a vision we'd be on a conference call tonight talking about it," he said during the conference call.
"The Navy is just doing its job out here. Conducting combat operations over Afghanistan and maintaining freedom of the sea."
No response to the rescue has been received from Iran, Faller said, although he acknowledged his forces have recently encountered Iranians.
"We have had interactions at sea with Iranian aircraft and surface ships," he said. "Those interactions have all been professional."
He did not provide further details.
Asked if the Stennis might go back through Hormuz, Faller gave the standard response.
"The Strait of Hormuz is an international strait, and by international law is subject to freedom of navigation," he said. "If it means moving back through the strait that's what we'll do. Right now it's business as usual as we focus on operations over Afghanistan."
"The U.S. Navy has been here for over 60 years," Faller added, "and we'll be here as long as we're needed. On call and ready."
Pratt & Whitney has won a $194 million fixed-price contract for long lead parts for 37 F-35 engines, the Pentagon announced Jan. 6. The engines are for the sixth production lot of the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.
The U.S. Air Force, which flies the conventional F-35A version of the tri-service jet, will receive 18 of the engines. The U.S. Navy will receive seven engines for its carrier-based variant - the F-35C model - while the U.S. Marine Corps is buying six engines for its short take-off vertical landing F-35B model planes.
There are also six foreign engine orders, four for the Italians and two for Australia.
The Navy is paying $37 million for the engines; the Air Force is paying $54 million; and the Marines are paying $84.6 million. The engines for the Marine Corps are more expensive because they include the lift-fan propulsion system needed for its variant.
As for the foreign engine orders, the Italians are on the hook $11.5 million while the Australians will pay $5.6 million.
The work should be completed by this September. The contract is being administered by the Naval Air Systems Command at Patuxent River, Md.
U.S. President Barack Obama has given his approval for the sale of weapons and defense services to South Sudan, possibly paving the way for purchases of air defense systems, equipment the South has been asking for since before its independence.
SOUTH SUDANESE SOLDIERS march with their national flag during a military parade marking South Sudan's independence in July. (Phil Moore / Getty via AFP)
In a Jan. 6 memo sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama said that the "furnishing of defense articles and defense services to the Republic of South Sudan will strengthen the security of the United States and promote world peace."
The Republic of South Sudan, which officially declared its independence from Sudan in July, faces a number of internal and external security challenges.
Inside the country, violent tribal clashes in the state of Jonglei have resulted in the death and displacement of thousands of people. In response, the United Nations has launched major emergency and food distribution operations.
Meanwhile, tensions continue to rise between South Sudan and Sudan, which is accused of attacking the southern country using aerial bombardments.
Sudan ended a decades-long civil war in 2005, at which point the southern region was granted autonomy but not independence.
Last January, South Sudan overwhelmingly voted for its independence from Sudan, news welcomed by the Obama Administration, which, along with the U.S. Congress, has been a strong supporter of the independent state.
However, over the last year, attacks and border incursions by the north have continued and some believe the two countries are lurching toward war.
"It is becoming more likely almost by the day," Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College and a Sudan researcher and analyst, said.
Reeves said he hoped Obama's executive order would allow South Sudan to buy the defensive military capabilities it needs to protect itself.
E.J. Hogendoorn, Horn of Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, called the order "quite significant given the fact that there has been a very significant ramp of tensions between Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan."
"I have to imagine that part of the discussion within the administration was: 'What kind of signal does this send?'" Hogendoorn said.
Sudan's military capabilities far surpass those of South Sudan.
Sudan's air force includes MiG-29 Russian fighter jets, Soviet-built Hind helicopter gunships and troop transport aircraft.
The approval from the White House could open the door for South Sudan to acquire air defense systems, which some advocates of South Sudan have argued are long overdue.
"This determination is not a surprise, and indeed many feel as I do that it has been much too long in coming, especially given the enormous security challenges facing South Sudan," Reeves said.
In addition to air defense, South Sudan needs transport helicopters, communications gear and training to convert the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) from a guerilla force into a modern army, Reeves said. "One of the reasons that violence in Jonglei got out of hand was that both the U.N. and the SPLA had a tremendous amount of difficulty getting people into Pibor," the town under attack.
However, whether the White House's decision on weapons exports changes things on the ground, Reeves said it is too early to tell.
"Let's see what this thing actually translates into," he said. "It's an enabling action, but it does nothing on its own."
BEIJING - China's official Xinhua news agency said Jan. 6 it welcomed a bigger U.S. presence in Asia, but only if it helped promote peace in the region, after President Barack Obama unveiled a new military strategy.
The plan calls for the U.S. military to strengthen its presence in Asia and prepare for possible challenges from countries such as China, while downplaying future huge counter-insurgency campaigns such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Beijing has given no official response to the review, but Xinhua said Jan. 6 that the United States was welcome to make "more contribution to peace and stability in the Asia Pacific region", while urging it against "warmongering".
"The U.S. role, if fulfilled with a positive attitude and free from a Cold War-style zero-sum mentality, will not only be conducive to regional stability and prosperity, but be good for China," it said in a comment piece.
"However, while boosting its military presence in the Asia Pacific, the United States should abstain from flexing its muscles," it added. "If the United States indiscreetly applies militarism in the region, it will be like a bull in a china shop, and endanger peace instead of enhancing regional stability."
The United States is increasingly focusing its attention on the Asia-Pacific region, where commanders worry about China's growing military power.
The People's Liberation Army is the world's largest active military, and is extremely secretive about its defense programs, which benefit from a huge and expanding military budget.
In November, Obama went on a week-long tour of the Pacific in a bid to enhance the role of the United States in the region, positioning Marines in northern Australia and pushing for a trans-Pacific trade pact.
Shortly afterwards, China announced it would conduct routine naval exercises in the Pacific Ocean, in what some saw as a symbolic move aimed at the United States. Meanwhile, the Global Times - an official, nationalistic daily newspaper - accused the United States of trying to contain China and called on Beijing to "strengthen its long-range strike abilities and put more deterrence on the U.S."
"The U.S. must realize that it cannot stop the rise of China and that being friendly to China is in its utmost interests," it said in en editorial.
The new U.S. strategy unveiled Jan. 5 calls for a leaner military, and also focuses on preventing Iran from securing nuclear weapons.
TEHRAN - Iran is to hold fresh military exercises in and around the strategic Strait of Hormuz within weeks, the naval commander of its powerful Revolutionary Guards was quoted as saying Jan. 6.
The maneuvers are to be held in the Iranian calendar month that runs from Jan. 21 to Feb. 19, the Fars news agency quoted Ali Fadavi as saying.
They will underline Iran's assertion that it has "full control over the Strait of Hormuz area and controls all movements in it," Fadavi added.
The announcement - which narrowed down a timeframe for the exercises the Guards had previously only given as "soon" - risked aggravating tensions with the West over the strait.
The waterway is the world's "most important chokepoint" for oil tankers, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administrations. Some 20 percent of the world's oil flows through the narrow channel at the entrance to the Gulf.
Iran's regular navy completed 10 days of war games to the east of the strait, in the Gulf of Oman, early this week with tests of three anti-ship missiles.
Iran's military and political leaders have warned they could close the strait if increased Western sanctions halt Iranian oil exports.
The navy has also warned it will react if the United States tries to redeploy one of its aircraft carriers to the waterway.
The Revolutionary Guards, who use high-speed skiffs mounted with missile launchers and other lightweight vessels, periodically hold maneuvers in and around the Strait of Hormuz.
The last ones took place in July 2011 and included the firing of several anti-ship missiles, including two Khalij Fars missiles with a range of 190 miles.
Fadavi did not give details of the new maneuvers.
"The 7th in the series of Great Prophet Maneuvers will be conducted in the area of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. They will have significant differences from the previous ones," Fars quoted him as saying.
ISTANBUL - Turkey's former army chief Ilker Basbug was detained Jan. 6 over an alleged bid to topple the Islamist-rooted government in the latest confrontation likely to inflame tensions with the powerful military.
"The 26th chief of staff of the Turkish republic has unfortunately been placed in preventive detention for setting up and leading a terrorist group and of attempting to overthrow the government," Ilkay Sezer, a lawyer for Basbug, was quoted as saying by the Anatolia news agency.
He is the first such high-ranking military commander to be arrested as a suspect since a former chief of staff in the 1960s, according to the Turkish press.
However, dozens of active and retired military officers, academics, journalists and lawyers have been detained in recent years in probes into alleged plots against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Basbug, who retired in 2010, is the most senior officer caught up in a massive investigation into the so-called Ergenekon network, accused of plotting to topple Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).
His arrest came hours after he testified as a suspect at an Istanbul court Jan. 5 as part of a probe into an alleged Internet campaign to discredit the government.
"The commander of such an army facing charges of forming and leading an armed organization is really tragicomic," the 68-year-old general told prosecutors, Anatolia reported.
"I always followed the law and the constitution throughout my tenure."
Tensions between Turkey's fiercely secularist military and Erdogan's government have been building for years, and now about one-tenth of the army's generals are in custody over the alleged coup plots.
Basbug, who served as army chief from 2008 to 2010, was sent to a prison at Istanbul's Silivri prison where other suspects of the alleged Ergenekon network are being detained. His lawyer said he would challenge the court's ruling.
"Nobody can be declared guilty without a court decision," said Turkish President Abdullah Gul, a close Erdogan ally whose 2007 election was met with fierce opposition from the military.
"Everybody is equal before the law."
The military, which considers itself as the guardian of secularism in modern-day Turkey and currently boasts a force of 515,000 troops, has carried out three coups - in 1960, 1971 and 1980.
More recently in 1997, the military ousted a coalition government led by an Islamist prime minister.
"We are witnessing history," Nihat Ali Ozcan, security analyst at the Ankara-based TEPAV think tank, told AFP. "I believe Basbug's arrest will have a catastrophic impact on the military in the medium term.
"And on the political front, it will lead to polarization between those who defend the legal process in the name of democracy and those who consider it authoritarianism under one-party rule."
The move against Basbug appears to be a fresh warning to the Turkey military - the largest of the NATO member states after the United States - whose political influence has waned since Erdogan's AKP came to power in 2002.
Critics accuse Erdogan's government of launching the Ergenekon probes as a tool to silence its opponents and impose authoritarianism, charges it denies.
But even those close to government circles have voiced doubts about the legitimacy of the investigations, especially after the arrest of two prominent investigative journalists Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener.
Among the accusations leveled against Basbug is an alleged attempt by a group of army officers to establish websites to disseminate anti-government propaganda in order to destabilize the country.
"I reject this charge ... I, as the chief of General Staff, am the commander of the Turkish Armed Forces which is one of the most powerful armies in the world," said Basbug in his testimony, according to Anatolia.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of Turkey's opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), said the courts trying the Ergenekon suspects were not delivering justice.
"They are implementing decisions made by the political authority," he was quoted as saying by Anatolia.