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October 13, 2011
Notes from the Pentagon

The Pentagon is engaged in a behind-the-scenes political fight over efforts to soften, or entirely block, a new military-approved program to bolster U.S. forces in Asia.

The program is called the Air Sea Battle concept and was developed in response to more than 100 war games since the 1990s that showed U.S. forces, mainly air and naval power, are not aligned to win a future war with China.

A senior defense official said Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is reviewing the new strategy.

“We want to do this right,” the official said. “The concept is on track and is being refined to ensure that we are able to implement it wherever we need to - including in the Asia-Pacific region, where American force projection is essential to our alliances and interests.”

The official noted that the program is “the product of unprecedented collaboration by the services.”

Pro-defense members of Congress aware of the political fight are ready to investigate. One aide said Congress knows very little about the concept and is awaiting details.

Officially, the Pentagon has said the new strategy is not directed at China.

But officials familiar with the classified details said it is designed to directly address the growing threat to the United States and allies in Asia posed by what the Pentagon calls China’s “anti-access” and “area denial” weapons - high-technology arms that China has been building in secret for the past several decades.

The Chinese weapons of concern are called “assassin’s mace” systems, which Beijing strategists calculate will allow its weaker forces to prevail over the U.S. military. They include anti-satellite weapons, cyberwarfare forces, ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines, sea mines, advanced fighters and unmanned aircraft. Nuclear arms and exotic electromagnetic pulse weapons also are included.

The U.S. response in the Air Sea Battle concept is said to be a comprehensive program to protect the “global commons” used by the United States and allies in Asia from Chinese military encroachment in places such as the South China Sea, western Pacific and areas of Northeast Asia.

The highly classified program, if approved in its current form, will call for new weapons and bases, along with non-military means. Plans for new weapons include a long-range bomber.

Other systems and elements of the program are not known.

Speculation has focused on a suite of exotic weapons and capabilities that will allow U.S. and allied forces to strike Chinese targets, especially mobile missile launchers and bases that Beijing plans to use for attacks on U.S. ships and aircraft carriers, regional military bases and satellites.

U.S. strike systems also will target infrastructure and key electrical nodes in China that are used by its cyberwarfare forces.

Air Force Magazine reported in its current edition that the new concept was ready for final approval in February, but was held up during the summer by officials in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, now headed by Michele Flournoy.

In August, the Air Force announced that the concept was approved in June by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps service chiefs, and the Air Force and Navy secretaries. The final directive was to have been signed by departing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates before he left office in late July.

However, defense officials said China’s government was alerted to some aspects of the concept earlier this year when the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank presented its own concept for a new warfighting strategy against China.

Andrew Krepinevich, the center’s director who recently left the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, could not be reached for comment.

As a result of the disclosure, China launched a major propaganda and influence campaign to derail it. The concept was raised in several meetings between Chinese and U.S. officials, with the Chinese asserting that the concept is a sign the Pentagon does not favor military relations and views China as an enemy.

Officials in the Obama administration who fear upsetting China also are thought to have intervened, and their opposition led Mr. Panetta to hold up final approval.

The final directive in its current form would order the Air Force and the Navy to develop and implement specific programs as part of the concept. It also would include proposals for defense contractors to support the concept.

Shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles obtained from pilfered stockpiles in war-torn Libya in recent months are beginning to show up in international black markets, raising concerns about terrorists using them to shoot down aircraft.

According to U.S. intelligence officials, the major worry is that about 5,000 SA-7 missiles are circulating on the arms market. The weapons were taken from stocks in Libya and moved out of the southern part of the country into neighboring Sudan.

The weapons, known as “manpads” for man-portable air-defense systems, are considered ideal dual-use terrorist weapons capable of shooting down military or civilian aircraft.

An August 2009 State Department cable from the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, reveals that manpads were widely available in Yemen, but their numbers were reduced through a joint U.S.-Yemen program.

“Although the program has likely recovered the bulk of the illicit manpads available on the black market, several more will likely be collected in the coming years,” the cable says, noting that the U.S. government offered to pay Yemen’s Defense Ministry to destroy its stocks of missiles.

The cable says the chaos of Yemen’s 1994 civil war made shoulder-fired missiles “widely available” and the missiles from Yemeni stocks were used by al Qaeda operations in Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 2001 and 2002.

By February 2005, 1,161 shoulder-fired missiles were destroyed and 102 have been collected since 2005.

“The small quantity of illicit manpads that still exist outside of state control in Yemen are in the hands of tribal leaders or [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], neither of which is likely to part with them at any price,” the cable says, noting that al Qaeda is thought to have six manpads, possibly SA-7s.

Much was made in the news media about Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s public reference last week to Predator strikes in Pakistan, as if a state secret were disclosed for the first time.

But actually, as CIA director, Mr. Panetta talked openly about the value of flying Predators over various tribal areas to kill al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, says reporter Rowan Scarborough.

A few months after taking the CIA’s helm at Langley in February 2009, he traveled to California to speak to the Pacific Council on International Policy.

To a questioner who suggested the drone strikes in Pakistan were creating more enemies and not making much of a dent in al Qaeda, Mr. Panetta answered:

“Obviously, because these are covert and secret operations, I can’t go into particulars. I think it does suffice to say that these operations have been very effective, because they have been very precise in terms of the targeting, and it involved a minimum of collateral damage. I can assure you that in terms of that particular area, it is very precise, and it is very limited in terms of collateral damage and, very frankly, it’s the only game in town in terms of confronting and trying to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership.”

Last week, while speaking to sailors and Marines in Naples, Italy, Mr. Panetta quipped: “Having moved from the CIA to the Pentagon, obviously, I have a hell of a lot more weapons available to me in this job than I had at the CIA, although the Predators aren’t bad.”

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