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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington D.C.) Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are stepping up cooperation and commitment to collective security by increasing defense contributions and joining the U.S. in deterring China, what Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin calls a “pacing threat.”
Briefing reporters following the virtual NATO Defense Ministerial meeting, Austin praised what he called the “unique perspectives” on deterring China from several key member nations to include Finland, Sweden and the European Union.
“I applaud NATO's work on China and I made it clear that the United States is committed to defending the international rules-based order, which China has consistently undermined for its own interests,” Austin said, according to aPentagon transcriptof the discussion.
While of course initially formed to counter the former Soviet Union on the European continent, NATO has proven responsive in other areas of the world, such as Afghanistan following 9/11 following thehistoric invocation of NATO’s Article 5 defensive clause protecting all members from attack. Given the growing global connectivity with advances in satellite technology and networking, there is no reason why the reach, scope and protective envelope offered by NATO could not impact the Pacific as well.
There are many dynamics to this, including the growing realization related to Chinese global expansionism into places like Africa, where the Chinese government is known to be pursuing what some call a kind of “economic imperialism” aimed at increasing influence, ownership and power in the region. Also, the PLA has added a new military base near a well-known U.S. base in Djibouti and increased its presence in the area. Not only is Africa within range of NATO forces in many key respects, but the northern border parallels the Meditteranean Sea, where NATO can have alarge surface, undersea and aerial presence.
“I'm heartened to see that many of our allies meet or exceed NATO's 2014 Defense Investment Pledge, nine of the -- nine of them this year alone,” Austin added.
How might NATO have an impact in the Pacific? Certain interesting possibilities come to mind such as joint, collaborative training exercises in the region utilizing global deployments from NATO member countries. There is also the clear reality that Space and Cyber domains know no boundaries, meaning they could be impactful in substantial ways without necessarily relying upon geographical proximity. NATO-allied satellites, particularly if operating within global networks, could help locate Chinese missile launches and, perhaps in a more immediate sense, track Chinese movements and deployments beyond the specific, something which China is increasingly pursuing as it migrates quickly from a dominant regional power to becoming a leading global power.
“We here at the Pentagon and the Department of Defense view China as our primary pacing challenge and we believe NATO can help us better think through our operating concepts and investment strategies when it comes to meeting that challenge,” Austin said.
While being clear to emphasize that security, deterrence and meeting global threats are the Pentagon’s number one priority, Austin responded to a question about possibly decreasing tension with China by saying “no doubt there are some areas where we will see common interest and there may be an opportunity to engage.”
At the same time, Austin was clear that any engagement “will be from the standpoint of promoting our bests interests.”
“My number one concern and my number one job is to defend this country and protect our interests. And so we are -- in this department are going to do everything possibleto ensure that we have the right operational concepts, the right plans in place, and that we have resourced those plans with the right capabilities to present a credible deterrence to -- not only to China or any other adversary who would want to -- want to take us on,” Austin said.
Alongside the prospect of NATO assistance with deterring China, as the technology is making the world smaller, Austin and allied NATO countries are also fortifying efforts to deter Russia throughout Europe. As part of this, the Pentagon is putting more eyes in the sky over Eastern Europe in what could be seen as a fast-progressing pivot toward strengthening deterrence against Russia throughout the continent, a series of initiatives which includes more multinational training exercises, development of land-fired long-range cruise missiles and surveillance assets in strategically vital areas.
The Air Force’s 25th Attack Group is shifting its operational focus from Central Command operations in the Middle East supporting campaigns in Afghanistan and againsts what’s left of ISIS, to stepped up operations with the U.S. Air Forces in Europe. The effort includes sending MQ-9 Reaper drones to Romania. The so-called “split-operations” will keep some ISR assets in the CentCom region, while sending others to Romania.
“The MQ-9 weapon system is continuously evolving to nest within Air Force initiatives to operate in and from contested environments against near-peer adversaries,” an Air Force reportsays.
This development is not only significant in that it adds highly sought after drone surveillance throughout potentially contested or tense areas in Eastern Europe, but is also represents the tactical evolution of the Reaper drone from a primarily counterinsurgency mission support surveillance of insurgents and terrorist in what’s called uncontested areas, into an air combat platform able to add enormous value in a potential massive, great power war. Clearly the Reaper’s effective role in drone strikes against terrorists points to the technical effectiveness and precision with which it is able to track and destroy enemy targets, attributes which might also prove valuable in great power conflict.
While the Predator may not be considered “stealthy” persay, the Air Force has for several years now been maturing and changing the drone to better prepare it for contested environments should it need to operate against a sophisticated high-tech enemy. The weapons attack envelope or armaments for the Reaper, have been massively expanded in recent years to include the addition of AIM-9X air-to-air missiles. The MQ-9 Reaper currently fires the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, a 500-pound laser-guided weapon called the GBU-12 Paveway II, and Joint Direct Attack Munitions or JDAMs which are free-fall bombsengineered with a GPS and Inertial Navigation Systems guidance kit.
The Air Force currently operates more than 100 MQ-9 Reaper drones and has, in recent years, begun configuring the platform with additional fuel tanks to substantially build upon the current 4,000-pound fuel capacity of the drone with a range of 1,150 miles. The upgrades to MQ-9 Reaper are designed to add two 1,350-pound fuel tanks to increase the drone’s endurance from sixteen hours to more than twenty-two hours. Additional dwell time and mission scope for the MQ-9 Reaper could make a lot of sense in Eastern Europe given how expansive the geography is along the Russian border. Surveillance assets will likely be in demand both in Northern Eastern Europe near the Baltics as well as key Southern areas of Eastern Europe to include the Black Sea and countries such as Romania.
NATO is also getting some additional undersea deterrence support. France is building a new class of nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines to serve alongside the new U.S. Columbia-class all the way into the 2090s and beyond, according to the La Figaro newspaper.
The French paper cited the French Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, as confirming that development of a new SNLE 3G SSBN-class was indeed underway. The new submarines, reported to displace about 15,000 tons, are slated to arrive in 2035 and be somewhat longer than the existing Triomphant class. While many details about the new boats are not known, they will reportedly carry the same missile load of 16 M51 SLBMs as the existing and now upgraded Triomphant class boats.
The development is quite significant, as it adds additional support to NATO’s broader strategic deterrence mission, providing support to the high priority U.S. undersea missions slated for its Columbia-class submarines. The Columbia-class submarines, expected to first emerge for patrols within a decade or so, are deemed by the Pentagon to be a number one priority.
While Columbias are being engineered with a new generation of quieting technologies, propulsion and electronics, there is nonetheless growing concern about the size of the planned U.S. fleet in light of the changing threat environment. The Pentagon plans 12 Columbia-class submarines, yet there has been some discussion of going beyond 12 due to growing Russian nuclear threats and rapid advances with new Chinese Jin-class nuclear-armed submarines.
The Columbia-class submarines new electric-drive propulsion system is reported to help engineer the quietest and stealthiest submarine to ever exist, yet there is still substantial concern about emerging technologies potentially employed by adversaries intended to improve submarine detection, a circumstance which may inspire an interest in deploying more Columbia submarines at one time, building more or relying upon NATO member contributions.
In recent years, several interesting think tank studies, including one from Bryan Clark at CSBA called the [Emerging Era in Undersea Warfare](https://csbaonline.org/uploads/documents/CSBA6292_(Undersea_Warfare_Reprint%29_web.pdf), specifies some of the newer innovations making undersea detection increasingly difficult to avoid.
This is where the new Columbia’s are expected to truly bring an unprecedented advantage, because not only are they architected to elude, thwart or defeat the most advanced emerging adversary detection systems, but they are also engineered with a “life-of-core” nuclear reactor which removes the need for a lengthy mid-life refueling dry dock period. This is the reason the Pentagon plans only 12 Columbia submarines to replace the existing fleet of 14 Ohio-class boats.
This is where France’s newballistic missilesubmarines might offer an interesting new margin of difference, meaning that added NATO-aligned strategic deterrence technologies could really help reinforce the U.S. mission. This may be particularly true when it comes to a need for patrols in the region of the Baltic Sea or mediterranean where an undersea presence is likely to be of great importance. Partnering to a greater degree with NATO countries when it comes to undersea operations could not only greatly improve presence, and therefore fortify deterrence, but also bring undersea networking and technologies to new levels of efficiency.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest*.* Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics& Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.