Saturday, February 13, 2010

Rollback: Is the Obama Administration Going Zero Sum on China?

A wise man—I believe it was Auric Goldfinger—once said:

Once is circumstance. Twice is happenstance. Third time it’s enemy action.

As China absorbs a sustained crotch-kicking from the United States on the issue of its impending Security Council vote on Iran sanctions, it appears to be pondering the fact that this is the third time in less than two months that China has found itself on the losing side of a diplomatic initiative by the United States.

First, at the Copenhagen climate summit, Beijing apparently came prepared to negotiate on the issue of emissions monitoring and verification, but was blindsided by the U.S. strategy of publicly demanding an undefined level of “transparency” as the price of the billions of climate adaptation aid dangled before the small and vulnerable countries that China claimed to be representing.

Second, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton jumped into the Google controversy with both feet, calling for China to conduct a “transparent”—hey, there’s that word again!—investigation.

Now, the United States is publicly calling upon China to look beyond its narrow, short-term interests (i.e. good relations with Iran and access to its oil) in favor of the long-term interests of the region (Persian Gulf ringed with pro-U.S. regimes graciously shipping oil to China).

In each case, China is being presented with a fait accompli in which it is being asked to sacrifice its own interests for the sake of U.S. priorities—zero sum instead of win-win, in game theory parlance.

And in each case, either by accident or design the Obama administration has seized upon a hot button issue that has formed a wedge between China and a vulnerable constituency: developing countries at Copenhagen, the international business community on Google, and the Arab states on Iran.

In fact, with only a little glimmer of paranoia, China would be justified to see the Obama administration’s geopolitics as a conscious exercise to roll back the easy gains in Africa, the Middle East, and with business-hungry entities and states around the world during the blundering Bush years.

It seems clear to me that China feels that way and, on the issue of Iran, has fired a clear shot across the bow of the United States.

Instead of discretely and confidently soft-pedaling the issue of America’s demands on China, Beijing has gone public with its dismay.

For instance, courtesy of Danwei, here’s the front page of Global Times, with the gigantic headline, The United States and Europe are Compelling China to Sanction Iran:



Normally, China is careful to advertise that nobody can force China to do anything.

In this case, I think it’s a signal to the United States that China is looking for a gesture that the Obama administration is not discarding the principle of win-win negotiations among equals when dealing with Beijing.

I wonder if they’ll get it.


I cover the issue in an article for Asia Times entitled, China feels U.S.-Iran fallout.

As to whether the Obama administration has a conscious and consistent strategy of rollback against China, my opinion is mixed.

On the one hand, I wonder if the Obama administration is capable of such sustained, Machiavellian cunning. If it had deployed a sophisticated multi-issue wedge campaign against the U.S. Republicans, the Democrats would have health care reform in their pockets by now and be looking at legislative domination in 2010.

On the other hand, the Iran issue looks a little too manufactured to represent a genuine crisis that just happened to buzzsaw China. And it’s not the first time China has found itself on the wrong side of a U.S. wedge issue.

The current sanctions campaign against Iran brings the Obama administration a host of domestic and regional political benefits, including an opportunity to wedge Syria away from Iran and Hamas.

As to the actual danger of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear assets, the punditocracy usually likes to invoke the IDF attack on Saddam’s Osiraq facility, usually accompanied by fluttering eyelids, moistening loins, and the trembling phrase “destroyed in 100 seconds”.

Iran’s nuclear program is a different kettle of fish, not only because Israeli planes would need explicit approval from the U.S. forces in Iraq or Saudi Arabia for overflight.

At the time of Israel’s attack on Syria’s “box in the desert” in 2007—seen as a project to demonstrate the feasibility of a devastating attack on Iran—I looked at some of the tactical issues involved.

The Israeli air force is undoubtedly working continuously to improve its long-range threat, but Iran is still a long ways away and there are quite a few targets to bomb.

Here's what I wrote in 2007. If anybody has an updated or more informed take, feel free to weigh in. If you follow the link to the original posts, you'll find links for some of the information and quotes.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Mystery of the Dropped Fuel Tanks

I had vowed to give up blogging on Middle Eastern affairs.

However, an e-mail from a reader concerning the Israeli raid on a purported North-Korea-linked military facility in Syria enticed me to wander off the Asian affairs res once again.

FYI, the combat radius of an F-15 in deep strike mode is 1800km
The distance to the Syrian target is ~ 700 km.

No need for drop tanks........

Hmmm. Too interesting to pass up.

The Internet is a treasure trove for armchair commanders and aviation and weapons enthusiasts. Industrious googling yielded the following information:

During the raid, some Israeli aircraft jettisoned two external fuel tanks up by the Turkish border.

The tanks were from an F-15I fighter bomber , called the “Ra’am” or “Thunder”, itself the Israeli variant of the F-15E Strike Eagle.

In agreement with my correspondent, the Observer states the Ra’am is:

...the newest generation of Israeli long-range bomber, which has a combat range of over 2,000km when equipped with the drop tanks.

But I think the Observer (and perhaps *gasp* a loyal reader) got it wrong. Either they confused cruising range with combat range, or confused the current F15I with its previous incarnations (for instance the F15C does have a combat radius of 2000 km).

The F-15E is a completely different animal from previous F-15s, which were sleek interceptors, designed “without a pound for the ground” i.e. no air to ground armament, for those days of air-to-air combat with the parfait knights of the Soviet bloc.

The F-15E is a big, fat hog of a plane, sometimes nicknamed the Flying Tennis Court, or Rodan for its resemblance to the ungainly but murderous superpterodactyl featured in the Godzilla movies.



It’s meant to carry big bombs and missiles to blow up stuff on the ground and the people standing in it or next to it, and fight its way out if necessary.

So it’s got bigger engines and less range than previous F15s.

According to the data I dug up, the F-15E has a combat radius—the distance it can be expected to fly for a mission assuming high speed, fuel-consuming maneuvers--of 790 miles (see here and here ).


To achieve this radius, it needs its internal fuel plus external fuel.

Internal fuel capacity is 5,952 kg.

External fuel consists of two components:

Conforming fuel tanks or CFTs with a total capacity of 4500 kg. They are integral parts of the plane—one report I read said the plane isn’t really designed to fly without them—and can’t be jettisoned.

Then there’s another 5500 kg in conventional external fuel tanks—the kind that were dropped during the mission.

With a fistful of caveats, the combat radius for an F-15I without the external fuel tanks would be around 500+ miles.

Distance from the Hatzerim airbase (home of the F-15I-equipped 69th Squadron) near Beersheba to Dayr az Zawr: 420 miles.

So you might think that the conventional external fuel tanks weren’t needed for this particular mission, and the only reason to carry them was for road-testing prior to some Iran-related hanky-panky.

Maybe yes, maybe no.

If the Israelis really did bomb Dayr az Zawr, it’s unclear why they went barnstorming up to the Turkish border a hundred miles away.

But they certainly did go, and to fly that kind of mission including a flyby of the Turkish border, I think they would need the external fuel tanks.

Maybe the Turkey excursion was to test some fancy new electronic countermeasures equipment mounted on another plane, called “Suter”, to disrupt Russian air defense hardware recently supplied to Syria—and Iran, for Israel’s benefit and our own.

Aviation Week put out the story courtesy of “U.S. officials”:

A Kuwaiti newspaper wrote that "Russian experts are studying why the two state-of-the art Russian-built radar systems in Syria did not detect the Israeli jets entering Syrian territory. Iran reportedly has asked the same question, since it is buying the same systems and might have paid for the Syrian acquisitions."


We got a certain amount of military chest-thumping about how cool this new gear is, but these planes only jettison their fuel tanks if they’ve been engaged and need extra speed and mobility, which leads one to believe it couldn’t have worked too great.

As to Israeli insistence that they’ll take out Iran if we can’t get off our collective rears, I found this analysis interesting and persuasive.

It argues that the Israeli air force simply doesn’t have the horses to haul the armament needed to make a terminal dent in the hardened and dispersed Iranian facilities on a 1200-mile mission—remember, more fuel means fewer weapons carried--unless the U.S. either assists in the refueling of the Israeli planes or allows them to stage the assault U.S. from bases in Iraq.

And maybe not even then.

Bottom line:

Theoretically, the Israelis could do this, but at great risk of failure. If they decide to attack Natanz, they will have to inflict sufficient damage the first time - they probably will not be able to mount follow-on strikes at other facilities.

When all the analyses are done, there is only one military capable of the sustained widespread air operations required to eliminate Iran's nuclear weapons research program - the United States.

So it looks like the Israelis could start something—but it would be up to Uncle Sam to finish the job.

I take this as support for my thesis that a key data point for Israel from the Syria raid was the nature of the U.S. support it did—or did not—elicit, and what that would mean for Israel if it conducted a dramatic but less than conclusive raid on Natanz with the hope that the U.S. could be dragged into the campaign.

So: War with Iran—it’s up to us. Don’t know whether that’s reassuring or disturbing.