Boeing disaster and American decline

The twin tragedies involving Boeing’s flagship new 737 Max jets highlight the increasingly obvious corruption and incompetence pervading US industry and government. From Asia Times:

By now the whole world knows what pilots and aerospace engineers have known all along: Boeing stuck big modern engines on a 1950s airframe design, which made the 737 Max inherently unstable, with a tendency to go nose up and stall. It used a software kluge to compensate but didn’t retrain pilots in the new aircraft in order to speed sales. […]

The 737 Max scandal is a disaster for the United States, and it couldn’t have happened at a more delicate moment. China’s aircraft manufacturer COMAC already has nearly 1,000 orders for its C919 twin-engine passenger jet, designed to compete with the 737 Max as well as the Airbus 320. Not only has the prestige of American industry been tarnished, but the credibility of its air safety regulators, the Federal Aviation Authority and the National Transportation Safety Board, is compromised.

China was the first major nation to ground the new Boeing jets, followed by pretty much everyone else (except for Canada). Notably, the world was not impressed by the FAA’s assurances that the plane is safe to fly. The curious result is that China is emerging as a global leader in aviation safety.

The main reason that America’s military position has deteriorated relative to strategic competitors is corruption, pure and simple. The incestuous alliance of the defense industry duopoly (Boeing and Lockheed-Martin) and the Pentagon brass has saddled the military with backward-looking strategies and enormous costs.

The Pentagon’s budget was boosted by a horrendous $82 billion this fiscal year.

But America’s biggest problem is the erosion of its industrial capability. It appears that Boeing cut corners and eschewed a long-needed redesign of its most profitable product because the additional capital expenditures and longer lead times would not have been viewed benevolently by the stock market.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

US to shrink aircraft carrier fleet from 11 to 10

Might as well. China’s deployment of carrier-killer missiles effectively turns our aircraft carriers into floating, $4 billion targets:

The Pentagon reportedly plans to send one of its Nimitz-class aircraft carriers into early retirement, shrinking the carrier fleet to save billions of dollars.

The US military is set to scrap plans for a midlife overhaul of one of its carriers, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported Tuesday. That carrier is the USS Harry S. Truman, which was scheduled to have its nuclear reactor core refueled in 2024, Breaking Defense’s Sydney Freedberg reported Wednesday.

The Truman, which entered service in 1998, was designed to serve for half a century, as is the case with all the Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. In 2024, the ship was to sail to the shipyard in Newport News, Virginia, for a refueling and complex overhaul, or RCOH, to be completed in 2028, Breaking Defense reported.

The cancelation of the midlife overhaul and retirement of the aircraft carrier — reportedly part of the 2020-24 budget plan — would see the US carrier fleet shrink in size, to 10 from 11.

One nation under Kim

Kim Jong-un smoking

The US and South Korea have confirmed reports that they plan to end large-scale war games to ease tensions with North Korea, which views these exercises as preparations for an invasion. I commented yesterday:

This could also be seen as a step in the direction of reducing the US troop commitment in South Korea, which currently numbers 28,500 soldiers, and perhaps eventually a total withdrawal.

My comment may not have been far off the mark. From a blog post by Dongseo University’s Professor BR Myers, dated March 2018:

Hence also the confident hope of many that under the right sort of pressure, Washington will reduce USFK [Ed: United States Forces Korea] from bodyguard to chaperone: a force just high-tech and well-armed enough to reassure foreign investors, reward the US military-industrial complex, and discourage the North from doing anything crazy, but too small and averse to military exercises to frighten the neighbors. (Which may well be what is foreseen for the very first stage of a confederation, as a transition to US troop pullout.)

The rest of the post is interesting for its analysis of the astonishingly anti-American, pro-North-Korean orientation of South Korea’s current government, led by president Moon Jae-in:

It is therefore misleading of the New York Times to say that the Moon Jae-in administration is “hungry for a diplomatic rapprochement” with Pyongyang. There is no bad blood or grudge between the two parties that must now be laboriously reconciled. Besides, they have the exact same short term goal of bringing off a North-South summit that is PR-effective enough to get a) the international community to relax sanctions, and b) the South Korean public to sign off on confederation. Their longer term goals are different. The North wants unification under its own flag, while South Korean progressives want the two states to coalesce over decades of mutually beneficial economic cooperation.

Here’s more on that topic by North Korea expert Joshua Stanton (dated April 2018):

LAST DECEMBER, I PUBLISHED A SURPRISINGLY CONTROVERSIAL HYPOTHESIS that Korean War II would not be a conventional war, but is a hybrid war to alternately cajole and coerce South Korea into gradual submission to the North’s hegemony, aggressive implementation of a series of joint statements, and eventual digestion into a one-country, two-systems confederation. I argued that this plan would only work if a sufficiently submissive government in Seoul yielded to Pyongyang while going only so far and so fast as possible to avoid a domestic backlash among a population that was, at least until recently, deeply distrustful of Pyongyang. Rather than involving anything as implausible and dramatic as a North Korean occupation, this hegemony would be enforced by South Korean institutions, such as state media, the National Intelligence Service, and the riot police—with occasional assistance from the muscle of hard-left street thugs, like those who are blocking the THAAD sites now and preventing them from becoming fully operational. I argued that the historical conduct of both Pyongyang and Korea’s left also suggested that this plan was not only plausible, but no great secret. This is why I find the controversy to be surprising. […]

Again, I’m not oblivious to how conspiratorial it all must seem. But then, on what evidence do skeptics of this view believe that those who staff the top ranks of the Moon administration — men who are veterans of groups like Minbyun, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, and Chondaehyop, with deep ideological and financial links to Pyongyang and a lengthy pedigree of violent anti-Americanism — have moderated their views? At some point, status quo bias must yield to what’s right before our eyes.

To reiterate what I said before, the US needs to reassess its relationship with South Korea in the cold light of these facts. If the Moon administration wants to pursue a phased unification with North Korea, then, well, that is the sovereign decision of South Korea. But in that case, the US should not have any part in defending South Korea from its friendly nuclear-armed neighbor to the north.

Korean unification

Unified Korea

NBC is reporting that the US is preparing to end the annual large-scale joint military exercises held with South Korea, as part of a bid to placate North Korea. This could also be seen as a step in the direction of reducing the US troop commitment in South Korea, which currently numbers 28,500 soldiers, and perhaps eventually a total withdrawal.

North Korea, of course, would love to see the US depart the peninsula, and according to BR Myers, a professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, that is in fact the goal of its nuclear program:

More concretely, North Korea wants to force Washington into a grand bargain linking denuclearization to the withdrawal of US troops. South Korea would then be pressured into a North-South confederation, which is a concept the South Korean left has flirted with for years, and which the North has always seen as a transition to unification under its own control.

The concept of unification under North Korea’s control is not as crazy as it sounds. In a fascinating speech from December 2017, Professor Myers explains South Korea’s vulnerability to a Northern-led unification drive:

The Moon administration cannot be called pro-North yet. […]

His government nonetheless appears more hostile to anti-North, pro-American elements than any other administration has been. The intelligence service is already a shadow of its former self, and the ostensible anti-corruption campaign turns out in practice to be a seemingly endless purge of veterans of conservative administrations. The word chŏkpye or “accumulated evil” is being used freely to mean any conservative, i.e. anti-North, pro-American, security-minded element. [Note: There is broader agreement between left and right on economic issues in South Korea than in the US, for which reason conservatism is considered largely a matter of animosity to the North Korean regime and strong support for the alliance with America.]

Most interestingly, Moon Jae-in’s right hand man, the number two in the Blue House, is none other than Im Jong-seok, a former protest leader who was in contact with the Kim Il Sung regime in 1989, and who spent much of his time in the National Assembly pushing causes of which the North approves. It’s due to Im, for example, that royalties must now be paid to North Korea for South Korean media use of its propaganda films and images.

Moon is pushing the idea of a “low-level confederation” between the South and the North, which Kim understands to be a path toward unification of the peninsula – under Pyongyang’s auspices:

Kim Il Sung told his Bulgarian counterpart Zhivkov that if the South agreed to confederation, “it’s done for.” That was 1973. He went on to try killing two presidents in succession, so obviously the South’s economic boom did not lessen his determination to unify the peninsula. You may say, “Yes, but in those days the South Koreans didn’t have a liberal democracy worth defending.” But from Kim Young-hwan, who traveled to Pyongyang in 1991, we know that the Great Leader was upbeat about the prospect of a takeover by the end of the century.

His grandson can hardly be less ambitious now that he has nuclear weapons, his ally has become a superpower, Washington is in chaos, and South Korea has its most pacifist administration ever. The young man also knows that people here do not identify strongly with their state. No public holiday celebrates it, neither the flag nor the coat of arms nor the anthem conveys republican or non-ethnic values, no statues of presidents stand in major cities. Few people can even tell you the year in which the state was founded. When the average man sees the flag, he feels fraternity with Koreans around the world.

North Koreans have been positive characters in South Korean films for about 20 years now. Popular this year have been buddy thrillers [Ed: like Steel Rain] that show North and South Koreans teaming up against a common enemy. Although all actors are of course South Koreans, the A-list heart-throbs play the North Koreans, which tells you a lot about how this republic sees itself in relation to the other one.

Even more extraordinary: North Korean defectors are increasingly common as villains. A new film has North and South Koreans cooperating to catch a serial killer who has fled to the South.

While nationalism is not strong enough to make people welcome a North Korean takeover, all Kim needs is for it to weaken their resistance to one. He can’t have failed to notice the general indifference to the Cheonan sinking and the attack on Yeonpyeong, both of which acts of [Ed: North Korean] aggression the local left blamed on Lee Myung Bak [Ed: the South Korean president at the time]. The only people who got really angry at the North then were already too old to fight.

Apparently, I spoke too soon when I speculated that Kim Jong-un may try to reinvent himself as an economic reformer in the mold of Deng Xiaoping:

Pyongyang watching has become quite an industry, and American presidents have kicked the can down the road for a quarter century in no small part because of expert assessments that proved to be very wrong. The North just wants an aid package, the Sunshine Policy will calm it down; black markets will weaken it; Kim Jong Un will be a reformer; ideology no longer matters there; and on and on. This may be the most protracted and catastrophic failure of intelligence in American history.

How hard would it be for the North to pacify the South in a unification scenario? Perhaps not very, according to Myers:

I read, for example, that Kim Jong Un must know he couldn’t hold on to power here, because South Koreans are such fearless protesters. Despite the ease with which the hated Japanese took the entire peninsula, and the unique longevity and stability of the North itself, some Americans seem to think Koreans are freedom fighters by nature. I shouldn’t have to point out that since 1945 the protests here have all been either anti-conservative, anti-Japanese, anti-American, pacifist or explicitly pro-North. In 1961, students marched through Hyehwadong in Seoul shouting “Long live Kim Il Sung.” All demonstrations here were cheered on by the Rodong Sinmun. Granted, there have been anti-Pyongyang rallies, but until 1988 they were organized by the government, and since then they have been the province of the geriatric right. Why should the North feel intimidated by this history?

Much is also made of how wired South Koreans are. Well, so what? The part of East Germany that caused Honecker the most problems was the one where TV bunny ears could not pick up West German broadcasts, where people read books and had a sense of community. Adorno said modern man is drugged with light and sound, and that’s much truer today; just look at the gormless faces on the subway. The narcotic and socially atomizing power of the internet is far greater than television’s ever was. As if that weren’t enough, it has the benefit of helping to spy on people — indeed, it gets them to spy on themselves. […]

Entire generations of South Koreans have grown up hearing good things about Kim Il Sung. To hear him glorified would not be as big or sudden a change as it would be to hear Syngman Rhee glorified. If you think I’m exaggerating, read some South Korean school textbooks.

In summary:

Pyongyang’s unification drive is not a will to wage war with the US. The nuclear program was conceived to compel the peaceful withdrawal of American troops. Encouraged by the long decline of conservatism and of hostility to the North, by public indifference to the twin attacks of 2010, and by Moon Jae-in’s pledges to realize a confederation, Pyongyang believes that a break-up of the alliance would resign the South to its ethnic destiny. It follows that America’s most urgent task is to call publicly on Seoul to disabuse the North of its hopes. This would have to entail formal renunciation of the concept of confederation, the South’s support for which now conveys to Pyongyang a prioritization of nationalism over constitutional, liberal democratic principles. As a sovereign state, the South has every right not to accede to any such requests from its ally. But in such an event, the US government owes it to the American people to take the next logical step — and I don’t mean a strike on North Korea.

Myers doesn’t spell it out, but the next logical step would, of course, be for the US to cut South Korea loose and let it face the North on its own. The piece should be read in full by anyone remotely interested in Korean politics, but Myers provides the TLDR version in an interview with Slate.

And here’s a great article, dated last October, in the South China Morning Post detailing the growing willingness of many in South Korea to countenance the idea of some sort of unification with the North:

Since April [2018], when Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held their first inter Korean summit, the Herculean challenge of North Korean denuclearisation has dominated the world’s attention. But on the Korean peninsula, the spotlight has shone with equal intensity on the steps being taken to complete a potentially even more monumental task: reunifying North and South.

In a Gallup Korea opinion poll last month, 84 per cent of South Koreans said they supported unification, the highest proportion since 2004, with most favouring a gradual process over the next 10 years.

“We expect debate about plans for unification to kick off in earnest in the second half of next year,” said Han Sung, a spokesman for the left-leaning civic group People’s Congress for Peace Federation. […]

With inter-Korean relations at their warmest in years, a growing chorus within South Korean politics, academia and civil society has steered discussion towards various models of political integration with the North – ranging from a federation to a union of states – that would mark the first practical steps toward unification.

A North Korean defector warns that a federation would be a Trojan horse for a Northern takeover of the South:

It is no secret that North Korea, which claims sovereignty over the whole peninsula, originally conceived of a federation as a way to subjugate the South without the bloodshed of war. Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean official to ever defect to the South, detailed in his 2001 book Sunshine Siding with Darkness Cannot Beat Darkness how Kim Il-sung believed federation would allow the North, united under “one ideology”, to dominate and propagandise the politically divided South.

The US, as well as South Korea, will certainly have some hard choices to make about their alliance in the years ahead. A US withdrawal would be extremely dangerous, as it would invite North Korean aggression. On the other hand, for the US to maintain a massive military commitment to a country that is increasingly aligned with our nuclear-armed adversary, is pretty insane. Something has to give, sooner rather than later.

De-escalation

Nuclear apocalypse averted on the Indian subcontinent:

Pakistan finally handed over a recently captured Indian fighter pilot after an inordinate seven-hour delay, allowing him to walk across the Wagah border on Friday night. Prime Minister Imran Khan had announced on the floor of the National Assembly on Thursday that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman would be released as a “gesture of peace.”

The release of the pilot proved to be a significant de-escalation measure, coming days after Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter jets crossed into Pakistan and bombed an alleged “terror camp” of the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). Pakistan retaliated with air strikes on Wednesday morning, bombing some open areas next to Indian military installations along the Line of Control (LoC) on the Indian side. Varthaman’s aircraft was scrambled from Srinagar air force base and engaged the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jets before being shot down. The air attacks came in the wake of a terror attack that led to the death of 40 Indian policemen in Pulwama, Indian-administered Kashmir.

The outcome was definitely a happy one for the pilot:

He was captured by the Pakistani military soon after being assaulted by some local residents. “I am happy to be back to my country,” he said to Indian officials waiting anxiously before he was whisked away to board a flight to Delhi. He will have to undergo a detailed debrief, IAF officials told Asia Times.

According to Pakistani media reports, Varthaman was confused about his location before being found by the local residents. They chased him for half a kilometer, and he fired a few shots with his service pistol to dissuade them, before jumping into a pond. “He was trying to swallow some documents and drown the rest when the locals caught up with him,” eyewitnesses said. The locals had started beating him up when Pakistan Army soldiers arrived and took him away.

A free hand

Looks like India and Pakistan could be on the brink of all-out war:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the Indian military a “free hand” to act regarding the time, place and how they want to move forward after Pakistan violated the Indian airspace earlier on Wednesday, according to sources. The decision was taken at a high-level security meeting with all three Service Chiefs.

With a sharp spike in tensions between India and Pakistan following an airspace violation across LoC, Modi on Wednesday met service chiefs and National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval at his residence at 7 Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi, to discuss the prevailing situation at the border areas in Jammu and Kashmir. The meeting came hours after Pakistan on Wednesday intruded into Indian airspace in Jammu and Kashmir’s Nowshera and Poonch sectors of Rajouri district and captured one of its pilots.

Yeah, that’s alarming.

Ruh-oh

Things are heating up between India and Pakistan:

Pakistan said it shot down two Indian aircraft from inside its airspace Wednesday and launched strikes inside Indian-controlled Kashmir, one day after India sent jets into Pakistani territory for the first time since 1971 and dropped bombs there.

The tit-for-tat aerial strikes marked the first serious military escalation between the two nuclear-armed rivals in two decades, although it did not immediately appear that either attack had caused any casualties. Both countries claim the Himalayan Kashmir region, which is divided by a militarized “Line of Control.”

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said its air force strikes were aimed at “non-military targets” to avoid human loss and damage, and that their sole purpose was to “demonstrate our right, will and capability for self-defense.” It said Pakistan has “no intention of escalation, but we are fully prepared to do so if forced.”

Hopefully cooler heads will prevail. It’s safe to say the world does not need a shooting war between two nuclear powers right now.

Russia doubles down in Venezuela

The overthrow of Maduro may not go *quite* as smoothly as the US State Department is probably hoping it will:

Private military contractors who do secret missions for Russia flew into Venezuela in the past few days to beef up security for President Nicolas Maduro in the face of U.S.-backed opposition protests, according to two people close to them.

A third source close to the Russian contractors also told Reuters there was a contingent of them in Venezuela, but could not say when they arrived or what their role was.

Russia, which has backed Maduro’s socialist government to the tune of billions of dollars, this week promised to stand by him after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself president with Washington’s endorsement.

[…]

Yevgeny Shabayev, leader of a local chapter of a paramilitary group of Cossacks with ties to Russian military contractors, said he had heard the number of Russian contractors in Venezuela may be about 400.

But the other sources spoke of small groups.

The contractors are believed to be linked with Russian paramilitary organization the Wagner Group, which has also sent forces to Ukraine and Syria. It would, of course, be suboptimal for the US to end up in a shooting match with Russian mercenaries in Venezuela. If that happened, it would not be the US’s first rodeo with Russian clandestine forces. Last February, the US killed 200-300 pro-government forces in Syria, many of which were believed to be Russian mercenaries linked to Wagner Group.

The strategic landscape and stakes are a bit different for Russia now, since Venezuela is on the other side of the Atlantic rather than in Russia’s backyard.

Hypersonic race

Russia says it has conducted another successful test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile:

Moscow’s hypersonic glide vehicle, dubbed Avangard, has been in development for three decades and can travel at least five times the speed of sound, or about one mile per second.

The weapon, which the U.S. is currently unable to defend against, is designed to sit atop an intercontinental ballistic missile. Once launched, it uses aerodynamic forces to sail on top of the atmosphere.

Sources familiar with U.S. intelligence reports assess that the Russian hypersonic glide vehicles are equipped with onboard countermeasures that are able to defeat even the most advanced missile-defense systems. The weapons are also highly maneuverable and, therefore, unpredictable, which makes them difficult to track.

The US appears concerned:

The Defense Department is looking to step up its development of hypersonic weapons — missiles that travel more than five times faster than the speed of sound — DOD leaders said at the National Defense Industrial Association-sponsored “Hypersonics Senior Executive Series” here today.

“In the last year, China has tested more hypersonics weapons than we have in a decade,” said Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. “We’ve got to fix that.”

Russia also is involved in hypersonics, Griffin said. “Hypersonics is a game changer,” he added.

If Russia were to invade Estonia or China were to attack Taiwan tomorrow, Griffin said, it would be difficult to defend against their strike assets. “It’s not a space we want to stay in,” he told the audience.

Pulling out

Evacuation of Saigon

Sometimes you just have to go

M K Bhadrakumar of Asia Times praises the decision to pull US troops out of Syria:

To take the last argument first – what will be the impact on the Syrian situation? To be sure, ISIS is down, but not quite out. But then, ISIS is today only residual terrorism, after the huge defeat in Iraq.

At any rate, the brunt of the fight against the ISIS was borne by the Syrian government forces and their allies – remember Aleppo? Their grit to finish the job has never been in doubt and there is no reason to fear any let-up.

In fact, their interest lies in stabilizing the security situation in the quickest possible way so the political process leading to a post-conflict Syrian order can be speeded up.

Ironically, the departure of the US forces could help matters, since in many ways the US military presence only impeded the anti-ISIS fight in Syria. It is well known that terrorist groups took shelter in the US-led security zones in eastern Syria.

The Al-Tanf base and its 50-square-kilometer security perimeter was only the most glaring example. Again, the “no-fly zones” prevented Syrian and Russian jets from hunting down the ISIS cadres and de facto amounted to US air cover for terrorists.

It’s really very hard to understand what the US strategy was in Syria. Was there even a specific strategic goal? What was the desired end-state of this campaign?

Personally I suspect most Americans’ reaction to this news has been: Wait, we had troops in Syria? Yeah, the public was never consulted about this, at all. I am not the only person who finds it bizarre that an ostensibly democratic nation can be engaged in a major foreign military campaign for years on end without a scintilla of public approval, or even knowledge, let alone a formal declaration of war. Did you know the US has at least a dozen military bases in Syria? What is going to happen to those?

Regardless, this is excellent news for the US. Give non-intervention a chance!