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By Derek Bisaccio, @DerekBisaccio
Russia's Deputy Defense Minister has announced that production of the country's stealth aircraft will begin in 2018, a seeming delay from previous reports that the aircraft, known as the PAK FA, would be ready for production next year.
Sukhoi, the manufacturer of the aircraft, released a statement on July 4 following Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov's visit to a plant in eastern Russia. Sukhoi noted in its press release, "Speaking about the PAK FA program, the deputy defense minister said that serial production of T-50 fifth-generation aircraft is scheduled to start in 2018."
The announcement that serial production will start in 2018 indicates that either a delay occurred with the program or previous reports about it going into production in 2017 were premature. In January of this year, Viktor Bondarev, the Commander of the Russian Aerospace Force, told RIA Novosti that "next year the aircraft goes into serial production," and he reiterated that expectation last month.
The PAK FA, like other advanced fighter jets being developed around the world, has encountered its fair share of difficulties that have pushed the aircraft's entry into service back in the past. A joint project with India regarding a variant of the PAK FA has been similarly plagued by setbacks.
Moscow's financial troubles have also negatively impacted the fighter program. Economic sanctions and the collapse in energy prices have reduced the government's revenues, forcing Russia to cut some expenditure and dip into reserve funds to ease the situation. As a result, plans for large orders have been scaled back, with an initial order likely to be no more than 12 aircraft, after earlier hopes that many more would be procured.
Despite the challenges the program continues to move forward. An eighth prototype fully meeting the military's requirements took flight on June 20. Several more prototypes are nearing completion currently and likely to see air testing before the end of this year.
In all, over 700 flight tests have been carried out to date, according to Sukhoi, and some of these tests include the use of guided missiles and other weapons systems. During testing in February, one of the prototype aircraft reportedly set a climb record of 384 meters per second.
The United Aircraft Corporation, the parent of Sukhoi, had hoped to receive an initial contract for the aircraft as early as this year, though with the latest announcement that serial production will not be until 2018, an order will likely come some time in 2017. Expectations of acquiring over 50 PAK FAs by 2020 are unlikely to be met, particularly if the financial situation does not improve.
Even after entering service, the aircraft will still not be to full capability for some time. In particular, the engines currently in installed on the aircraft are the same ones used by the Su-35 – which fuels some of the criticism that the PAK FA is not a true fifth-generation fighter – and while a new engine is being developed specifically for the PAK FA, it is not expected to be ready for testing until 2018 and will not enter service until 2025 at the earliest.
Nevertheless, completing the PAK FA will serve as a milestone for the Russian industry, which can boast of developing an advanced stealth fighter of a purely Russian design. Moreover, if nothing else, Russian firms can use the experience of developing a new fighter jet from scratch as the basis for future projects down the line, such as a sixth-generation fighter.
Importantly for the Russian military, the aircraft if procured in sizable quantities can give the Aerospace Force a challenge to the United States' F-22 Raptor. While Moscow's budget is likely to prove problematic in the short term, Russia is currently paying off debts (rather than accumulating them) and working to ease off its vulnerability to sanctions from abroad, particularly from the West. Continued effort in this end could certainly improve the budget picture down the road.
In the longer term, procurement of the fighter jet in bigger numbers may become feasible, assuming the PAK FA meets the capabilities as advertised, which either way will become apparent once the initial batch enters service as the military will run the aircraft through its own exercises.
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Following US Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Moscow on Tuesday where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, Kerry announced a critical shift in the US position on the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad: he can stay in power for a bit longer if Russia and America cooperate together in overseeing the transition from Assad's chaos to peace. ...What?
Assad is the very kind of "dictator" the US prides itself in fighting to remove. For the past four years, President Obama has called for Assad to step down. From Assad's alleged use of chemical gas to barrel bombs to ISIS overtaking Syrian territory, Assad attracts a very diverse response from world leaders on how to achieve peace because the situation in Syria is so complex.
Within the United States, where political debates are increasingly revolving around foreign policy -- especially to do with Assad and ISIS -- the presidential candidates (as well as politicians in general) find themselves equally divided on the Syrian solution. In fact, shifting positions on Assad seems to be the norm.
Below is a brief timeline of major American politicians on their stances regarding Assad and Syria, especially in relations to Putin and Russia.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tells the press "it's not going to be any news if the United States says, 'Assad needs to go.'"
A week later, US President Barack Obama announces for the first time -- after weeks of political pressure -- that Assad "must step down".
The American announcement happened in coordination with key allies' announcements: Germany, France, and the UK, amongst others, also called for Assad's departure from his presidency position around this time.
Western powers reportedly ignore a Russian proposal to securely remove Assad from his position, as the US, French, and British leaders believe the Syrian president would not last much longer in power.
President Obama addresses the nation, detailing the brutalities of the Assad regime and announces the US will strike Assad's forces to deter the regime from the use of chemical weapons.
The US and Russia then pushed for Syria to become party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which banned the use of chemical and biological weaponry in warfare.
President Obama states at the G20 press conference that "there’s no expectation that we are going to in some ways enter an alliance with Assad. He is not credible in that country."
The US president continues on to say that "we are looking for a political solution eventually within Syria that is inclusive of all the groups who live there -- the Alawite, the Sunni, Christians. And at some point, the people of Syria and the various players involved, as well as the regional players -- Turkey, Iran, Assad’s patrons like Russia -- are going to have to engage in a political conversation."
When that point would be, though, was never clear. He then ended the Assad discussion with this:
Four years later, increased diplomacy between major powers -- especially the US and Russia -- start to cause US leaders to soften their "Assad must go" position.
The New York Times quotes an unnamed senior American official as saying, "It’s encouraging, but we’re still a long ways off [on a solution for Assad]."
Donald Trump tells Americans to let Russia take care of Assad and ISIS.
"Let Syria and ISIS fight. Why do we care? Let ISIS and Syria fight. And let Russia, they're in Syria already, let them fight ISIS. Look, I don't want ISIS. ISIS is bad. They are evil. When they start doing with a head chopping … these are really bad dudes. … Let Russia take care of ISIS. How many places can we be? … Russia likes Assad seemingly a lot. Let them worry about ISIS. Let them fight it out."
Hillary Clinton, now a presidential candidate and no longer Secretary of State (since 2013), states removing Assad is America's top priority, four years after she said it wouldn't make US news.
A month after the Paris attacks, a week after the San Bernardino attack, the day Los Angeles shut down its public schools due to a bomb threat, and the last Republican debate of the year before the holidays. Also the day Kerry meets Putin and Lavrov in Moscow.
The Secretary of State officially reverses the position of the US on Assad, while Republican contenders for the 2016 election spar over what to do. The more memorable quotes are are anti-Russian and anti-intervention.
Donald Trump: "Spend the money [used in striking in the Middle East] in the US... It's a tremendous disservice to humanity, and for what? [The Middle East is] a mess, [a] total and complete mess."
John Kasich: "In regard to Syria, understand that Assad is an ally of Iran who wants to extend that Shi’i radicalism all the way across the Middle East. He has to go. And for the Russians, frankly, it's time to punch the Russians in the nose. They’ve gotten away with too much in this world, and we need to stand up against them, not just there, but also in Eastern Europe where they threaten some of our most precious allies."
Rand Paul: "We need to confront Russia from a position of strength."
Chris Christie: "Reckless was inviting Russia into Syria."
As of posting, President Obama has yet to make an official statement confirming Kerry's comments in Moscow. Kerry maintained that it is in the best interest for the world when Russia and the US cooperate, and that this cooperation is "a sign of maturity" between the two presidents.
While it's great for the US and Russia to be on slightly better terms again, time will only tell if this rekindling of relations will bring Assad to justice and peace to the Syrian people.
Since the shootdown of a Russian Su-24 by the Turkish Air Force on the 24th of November, Russia has escalated its bombing campaign in Syria against rebel groups in the north of Syria, including ones the US calls ‘moderate forces’. Some of these groups have the backing of the US & Turkey and have been actively fighting against both the Assad regime and ISIS for some time. Following Russia’s intervention in the war, the number of deadly airstrikes have increased targeting both rebels and also truck convoys moving across the border from Turkey into Syria which allegedly carried aid. Russia has as stepped up its attacks in areas close to the Turkish border that are home to a large number of Turkmen, seen by Turkey as their ethnic brethren.
As well as bombing, Russia has committed heavier and more sophisticated hardware to the region, including the S-400 anti aircraft system. Although there was some evidence that suggested that the S-400 was in the country already, Russia only revealed the system after the shootdown of the Russian jet. Furthermore, Russia has also started arming some of their fighter/bomber aircraft with air to air missiles for ‘defence’ and has deployed the guided missile cruiser ‘Moskva’ to the region, in order to provide additional anti-aircraft protection.
Aside from these direct military deployments, Russia has been hitting back at Turkey in other ways, such as arresting Turkish businessmen, banning Russian football clubs from signing Turkish players and seizing Turkish cargo ships. The Russian government has even gone so far as to pursue economic sanctions against Turkey, and discouraging Russian tourists from visiting.
Today may turn out to be a critical day for the course of the Syria Civil War. While the exact details are still far from clear, for the first time in 50 years a NATO country has shot down a Russian jet in air-to-air combat. Turkey, in shooting down a Russian jet has ratcheted up the tension over Syria to its greatest level in the four and a half year long war. But what is confirmed so far about what happened?
At around 09:00 local time this morning, Turkish F-16 fighter jets intercepted a Russian Su-24 ‘Flanker’ jet. Turkey claims this jet had breached its airspace, while Russia claims that it was 4km within Syrian airspace. According to radar tracking information released by Turkey, even in their version of the story, the jet only was in Turkish airspace for a matter of seconds.
Following a number of (alleged) warnings, an F-16 jet fired an air-to-air missile at the Russian Su-24, destroying it and forcing its two pilots to eject. While this ejection was successful, the pilots fell towards rebel-controlled territory in Latakia Governorate in Syria. Video footage from a rebel group on the ground then showed fighters firing at the descending pilots, before another video showed at least one pilot dead on the ground with wounds consistent from small-arms fire. The second pilot was also reported dead by these rebels, however this has yet to be confirmed via photographs or other means.
Following the shoot-down, the Russian Air Force deployed a number of rescue helicopters to retrieve the downed pilots. These attempts were unsuccessful, and one Mi-8 helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing for an unknown reason. While on the ground, this helicopter was targeted by Abu Hamza of the FSA 1st Coastal Division, who destroyed it with a US supplied TOW missile. The Russian Ministry of Defence later confirmed that one Russian marine was killed in this incident. The fate of the rest of the crew is currently unclear.
Aftermath and Political Fallout
This event marked the first time a NATO member has ever shot down a Russian jet. The initial response by Russia was rather muted, likely due to their leadership trying to ascertain the specifics of what happened. Several hours later, Putin responded to the shoot-down, calling it a “stab in the back" committed by "accomplices of terrorists". The Russian Ministry of Defence also characterised the shoot-down as an “unfriendly act”, and promised a series of measures in response.
Later in the evening, the MoD also announced a significant tightening of its air support in Syria. All operations would now reportedly fly with a fighter escort and “dangers” to Russian aircraft would be "destroyed” with support from ship-based anti-aircraft systems.
For its part, Turkey has defended its actions, with President Erdogan claiming that “we did our best to prevent this outcome”. As well, Erdogan claimed that Turkey’s actions were in some part driven by the desire to protect ethnic Turkmen in Syria from Russian bombing saying: “Russia is bombing Bayirbucak Turkmens and claiming they are targeting ISIS.” As well, in a leaked letter to NATO his government referred to repeated breaches of its airspace over the last few years as a further pretext for its actions.
No WWIII, But More Room for Escalation
While there will likely be no further escalation or direct reprisals from either party following this incident, there is now a much greater risk of escalation. With both sides taking aggressive postures to defend their aircraft and strategic interests, mistakes and miscalculations are possible, if not probable. As has become the norm over the previous years, Syria is becoming an even more dangerous flashpoint.
This is Part 2 of a 2-part series on ISIS’s strategic evolution. Part 1 can be read here.
In the past month, ISIS, in collaboration with its regional affiliates has killed at least 400 civilians in a series of major attacks. On October 31, the group’s Sinai Province bombed a Russian passenger jet flying from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg, killing 224. Then on November 10, a series of suicide bombers targeted a Shia neighborhood of Beirut killing at least 43. Finally on November 13, nine attackers conducted a Mumbai-style assault on several regions around Paris, killing at least 129 people.
Such attacks are both unprecedented in terms of scope and scale. So how do they fit into what we know about ISIS’s strategy of continuous theater-based offense?
The simple answer is they don’t. Rather, they prove that the group’s baseline strategy of responding to military defeats with counterattacks elsewhere in Syria and Iraq is no longer viable.
Recent defeats have shown that the militant group has reached a limit in its ability to mount counterattacks. Notwithstanding a theater-wide Tet-style offensive in Iraq or Syria, the forces arrayed against ISIS are now too large in number, and too well organised to suffer new, large-scale losses of land. So instead, in order to maintain an air of invincibility, and gain a propaganda victory, the group is now engaging in spectacular international attacks.
The Far Enemy
Into the future, fresh ISIS offensives in Syria and Iraq are possible, if not probable, but are unlikely to have the same effect as those in the past. Furthermore, the rate of these offensives and their size will continue to decline as the group begins to feel the bite of continuous attrition from air-strikes and failed attacks. With the territory controlled by ISIS now in decline, the group is shifting more and more towards hitting soft international targets. This regression is in many ways similar to the focus Al Qaeda put on attacking the 'far enemy' (USA) over the 'near enemy' (Muslim countries) following the First Gulf War.
From a Western (and Russian) perspective, this is critically dangerous. With border security compromised due to large-scale arrival of refugees - the vast majority of which are legitimately fleeing the worsening regional conflict - security services have their work cut out for them. France alone has stated that it has a list of at least 10,000 “potential terror suspects”. Within such an environment, further attacks on soft targets are all but inevitable.
However, with each successive attack which ISIS carries out, they will also increase the number of foreign nations intent on destroying their core territories in Syria and Iraq. Already there is talk of a possible alliance between Russia and France, the two nations who have suffered the most from this recent wave of international terrorism, in order to defeat ISIS in Syria. With this taken into consideration, these attacks, while horrifying from a security perspective, also represent the beginning of the end of ISIS as a conventional military threat.
Obviously, the defeat of ISIS’s conventional forces will not solve the root problems that lead to the group’s rise in the first place. But rather it will give international players and local partners the space to implement reconstruction and educational projects, in order to restore some level of order to the regions formerly occupied by the group. Should these steps not be taken, a tactically different ISIS will continue to wage an insurgency in the region, as well as presenting a continuing international threat.
By Thomas Baron
As Russia increases its level of commitment on the ground in Syria, there are increased concerns that any meaningful change in the political situation is slipping away. Washington has, over the course of the civil war, reduced its own red lines and failed to act to support a meaningful uprising that could be deemed legitimate by the international order, and there are increased concerns over what direction the conflict will take and what the end will look like.
Ultimately, what is ideal for the Syrian groups on the ground is an all out victory in their favour while for the regional and international powers it is for a friendly government to be installed or maintained. The high levels of death and destruction such a victory entails in the short term has made them highly unpopular is recent decades amongst the international community (although there are arguments that such victories are more stable and ideal in the mid to long term) and most participants now insist that the conflict should end at the negotiating table.
A negotiated settlement is favoured outright by the United States and their Western allies for various reasons. The first of these is that such a settlement justifies international norms which state that democratic, inclusive negotiations are the key to successful governance as well as an effective moral and ethical resolution. A second, more practical reason is that it is increasingly clear that only through a negotiated settlement may the United States start building meaningful influence in a future Syria government that could benefit its global vision.
Occupying an essential position on the geopolitical map, Syria has been firmly seated in the anti-American bloc of nations since the Ba’ath party seized power in 1963. In spite of CIA attempts to cultivate an opposition movement to seize the country, particularly throughout the 1950s as part of anti-communist operations, US influence failed to gain hold and, in the years before the Arab Spring, the United States had little-to-no known influence over potential opposition groups on the ground.
With the rise of the Arab Spring and the fall of regimes across the region, many saw the conflict in Syria as a chance to topple the Assad/Ba’ath regimes once and for all, installing a government that was democratic in values, open to international norms on trade, and less hostile to its neighbours.
Attempts to bolster rebel forces who emerged as opposition groups armed as protection against increased government aggression failed and it has been increasingly obvious that the US lacks the ability or willingness to wield their power adequately to influence the dynamics of the conflict on the ground to the point where an all-out rebel victory could be won.
Evidence that Russia’s aerial campaign is focused not on ISIS – as Moscow claims – but rather at Arab rebels that pose a threat to the Assad regime is growing. Targeting these groups helps lessen the pressure on areas under Assad’s control and helps him and his allies expand this control across the cities of the northeast of the country.
This strategy has the added advantage of eroding non-ISIS, Arab rebels and limiting the groups available for support on the ground by regional and international players. By doing so, it is hoped, the conflict will slowly move away from the complex network of actors on the grounds towards a two-way fight between the Assad bloc and ISIS, realising the held rhetorical line that Assad is the last bulwark against terrorism. Doing so would make a negotiated settlement impossible as non-ISIS rebel groups hold no points to negotiate and nothing to offer at the table.
Other states traditionally allied with the United States – mainly the Gulf States and Turkey – have been able to build some influence with material support to groups who the United States has traditionally been deemed too ‘Islamist’ to support. These states may not share Washington’s willingness to negotiate a settlement with Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime, however, and it may be up to international powers to convince these states that such a diplomatic solutions are in their best interests.
A key for America’s strategy will be ensuring that fighting groups favourable to the United States can maintain a place on the battlefield in order to ensure a seat at any future table can be easily occupied and that their concerns will be taken seriously. Without control of places of geopolitical that will be essential to the future states, such groups would be marginalized in the future negotiations.
Such an outcome will be much easier to achieve than an all-out victory. The Obama administration has, since Russia began its aerial campaign, loosened its demands that Arab rebel groups meet certain criteria to be considered for US support and have ended failed training programmes for the elusive moderate rebels. Its new focus will be on forcing a stalemate on the ground, creating a situation in which all-out victory will be elusive to all players and advances on the battlefield near impossible for Assad’s forces, although it is unclear how far they are willing to go to achieve this aim.
If this paralysis can be achieved and if the parties in the conflict can be persuaded that this is the case, it will lead the way to divert the conflict of the battlefield towards the negotiating table. If victory is still seen as a possibility through war – or if parties believe advances can be made that will strengthen their position in negotiations – then negotiations will be elusive and the possibility of meaningful compromise weak.
In Syria it is important to note that for the United States, the fear of loosing strategic headway is slim. If they can nudge the Syria conflict to a negotiated settlement that would include groups open to Western and Gulf influence, this may be a victory in itself. An Assad victory would simply be a return to the norm in the levels of control they have over the territory of Syria and the cost of his removal as well as the risk of who his replacement may be, are too great for the US.
A return to normal, however, would signal to America’s allies a step-away from the region and an unwillingness to act as a security guarantor. Some fear that this will embolden the revolutionary bloc of states, leading Iran and Russia to further increase support for actors who will destabilize the regional and world order. Such a move could force America’s allies to look to self-defence and self-determination to tackle the expanding threat and may do so in a manner more disruptive, with itchier fingers on the trigger, that could lead to a greater level of conflict with more devastating results.
To be successful in this policy, the United States will need to relay the support of its regional allies to ensure that both they and their partners on the ground respect any negotiated settlements that can be forged. Similarly, it will need to ensure that Russia, as the biggest power involved, will respect the agreements, bringing the Assad regime, Iran, and Hezbollah to the table. Whether or not this can be achieved may be largely down to the diplomatic abilities of Obama and Kerry to make the negotiated settlement appear the best option.