Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Can't Wait for Washington

UPDATE/31 January:  An Iraqi newspaper in London (consider the source) reports the Israeli airstrike near Damascus yesterday targeted a chemical and biological weapons production facility.  According to western diplomats in Syria (who were interviewed by the publication), Israeli F-16s launched air-to-surface missiles against the complex and dropped at least one "bunker-buster" bomb.

The same sources claim the facility was guarded by 3,000 members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and a number were killed in the attack.

If this account is accurate--and we have our doubts--it suggests the Assad regime is nearing collapse.  Entrusting security of a WMD complex to the IRGC suggests the Syrian dictator can't trust the most elite members of his military, or the fight is going so badly that all ground force elements have been committed to the fight against the rebels.

In either case, it provides yet another indication of a regime nearing collapse.  What happens after Assad's departure is anyone's guess, but there will almost certainly be a bloodbath--and a scramble for what's left of the Syrian WMD arsenal.  For now, the U.S. seems to content to let events run their course, virtually ensuring that thousands more will die and some chemical and biological weapons may fall into the "wrong" hands.

The on-going civil war in Syria inched closer to becoming a regional conflict, as Israeli jets attacked a research complex near Damascus, and a weapons convoy heading to Lebanon.

With the Assad regime rapidly losing its grip on power, there have been rising concerns about "last ditch" moves by the Syrian dictator, ranging from chemical weapons attacks on neighbors like Israel and Turkey, to the transfer of chemical and biological weapons to its ally in Lebanon, the terrorist group Hizballah.

Needless to say, today's airstrike on that convoy did nothing to allay those fears.  Indeed, reports of Syrian weapons on the move--even conventional arms--suggest that Assad's government is in its last days, and assets are being transferred to prevent them from falling into rebel hands.

According to a press report, the convoy attacked today was carrying advanced SA-17 surface-to-air missiles to Hizballah.  From Israel National News:

The arms convoy that Israel reportedly attacked last night along the Syria-Lebanon border carried SA-16 missiles, among other things, according to foreign sources.  The SA-17 is a Russian-made surface-to-air missile.

The sources said that the shipment was intended for Hizbullah and that, had they made it into the organization's hands, the strategic balance of power in the region would have been altered.

Israel has not responded thus far to reports in the foreign press, according to which the IAF carried out the attack on the convoy.

According to some reports, the weapons convoy was attacked shortly after it crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon. Another source reported that the attack took place when the convoy was still inside Syrian territory. 

The Israeli Air Force Chief of Staff, Major General Amir Eshel, virtually telegraphed the move, in a speech he gave a few hours before the airstrikes began:

"The example in the north, in Syria, is the most glaring one, of a state that is in a process of disintegration, about which none of us has a clue as to what will be there on the day after," Eshel said
"Add to that a huge weapons arsenal, some of which is state-of-the-art, some of it unconventional, and all of this is happening – I can't call it our back yard, but on our borders. So we have challenges here ranging from the limited ones to the very large ones.  

So far, there have been no details about the strike on that research complex.  But it's a fair bet the targeted facility is connected to Syria's vast WMD program.  Israel has repeatedly vowed to use military force to prevent Assad's inventory of chemical and biological weapons from being transferred to Hizballah.  Today's raids suggest that Israel has detected disturbing activity that, in their view, must be halted.  The frequency and volume of air strikes in the coming days will give us some idea of what is going on inside Syria, in relation to its WMD arsenal.

For what it's worth, the U.S. (and President Obama) have made similar vows, saying the employment or transfer of WMD by Assad would represent the crossing of a "red line" that would not be tolerated.  So far, Washington has done nothing to back up such claims, a development not lost on our allies in the region, particularly Israel.

A medium-range SAM based on the original SA-11/GADFLY system, the SA-17 (NATO code name GRIZZLY) would provide a major upgrade for Hizballah's air defenses, which consist (chiefly) of shoulder-fired SAMs and light/medium caliber AAA guns.  With a maximum range of 20 miles--and an advanced radar--the SA-17 would allow Hizballah to engage a variety of aerial targets, ranging from jet fighters to smart bombs.  It's the type of "game-changer" that Israel simply can't allow in Lebanon.

Syria has operated the SA-17 for several years, and it's never been an impediment to Israeli air operations.  Still, in the right hands, the GRIZZLY can be a formidable air defense system.  During its brief 2008 war with Georgia, the Russian Air Force lost at least four aircraft to the SA-11, a development that was particularly embarrassing when you consider that Russian engineers designed and built the system.

With today's air strikes, Israel made it clear that it will not wait for the U.S. to decide on military action.  It's a perfectly understandable course of action.  Had Jerusalem let Mr. Obama take the lead, those SA-17s would have arrived safely in Lebanon, and they would be in service in a matter of days or weeks.

If there's any good news about the U.S. in this matter, it is the current silence from Washington regarding today's attacks.  There are indications the United States has given Israel some degree of latitude in protecting its interests in Syria and Lebanon.  IAF fighters remained active over Lebanon for hours after today's raids, apparently waiting for new targets to materialize.  It's a given that Israel's drone fleet is monitoring targets throughout Lebanon and even inside Syria, looking for more weapons convoys or changes at WMD facilities.  When those occur, the IAF will strike once more.

Sometimes, leading from behind simply isn't an option.             

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Three Views on Women in Combat

Today's reading assignments from Mackubin Thomas Owens in the Weekly Standard; Ryan Smith in The Wall Street Journal and Captain Katie Petronio in the Marine Corps Gazette.

Not exactly the PC version that the White House (or outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta) would like you to read, but it's the truth.  There's a reason that 99% of all women in the military can't pass muster for service in the infantry or special forces.  And it has nothing to do with sexism; it's all about physiology and the  fact that most women don't have the upper body strength or endurance to handle those jobs.

But remember this: with the door now open for women to serve in ground combat units, the left will do whatever it takes to make this "experiment" succeed.  When we start "gender-norming" for physical standards in the infantry, SEAL units; Special Forces A-teams and Air Force combat control and pararescue elements, we are finished as a military. But our feckless senior leaders (helloooo, General Dempsey) are willing to go along, figuring the consequences will become evident after they retire and in the mean time, maybe their bosses in the White House and on the Hill will go easy on sequestration.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

No Free Ride to the War Zone

UPDATE:  27 January 2013.  The Pentagon has announced plans to provide in-flight refueling support for French operations in Mali.  Guess someone explained to the Commander-in-Chief that we have these specialized planes that can transfer fuel to other aircraft in flight, and if we didn't contribute tankers to the French mission, it would grind to a screeching halt.      
There's an old joke in the military mobility circles, and it goes something like this: what do you call the transport section of the French Air Force?  Air Mobility Command, as in the USAF MAJCOM by the same name.

Sad to say, but the vaunted Armee de l'Air (ALA) lacks the necessary airlift to get troops, equipment and supplies to the war zone in Mali.  And, as operations there intensify, Paris put out an urgent plea for assistance, prompting the U.S. to send C-17 transports to ferry its forces into North Africa.  As of today (22 January), at least five C-17s have flown sorties into am airfield in Bamako, the capital of Mali, carrying at least 80 French troops and more than 120 tons of supplies.

It's a familiar scenario.  AMC airlifters have played a key role in carrying French troops to war zones in its former colonies for decades, and that trend won't change anytime soon.  Like most European nations, France has under-funded its military for decades, with some of the deepest cuts in support functions like airlift and in-flight refueling. Why spend billions on transport and tanker fleets when you've got the Americans?  No wonder many of the transports on the tarmac at Bamako carried the markings of such French-sounding locales as Charleston, South Carolina and Dover, Delaware.

And to no one's surprise, France has already requested U.S. tankers to supplement its small fleet of C-135R tankers, virtual clones of our own KC-135s.  With the tempo of air operations in Mali increasing rapidly, the French need more tankers to refuel fighter aircraft and other aerial platforms that must operate across long distances.  Given the geographic constraints of the Mali operation, it's a perfectly legitimate request.

Our response?  Until a few days ago, the Obama Administration was insisting that France reimburse us for all airlift and tanker missions flown in support of air ops over Mali.  At the time, the bill was somewhere between $17-19 million dollars.  Relative chump change, but the French were incensed.  Officials in Paris are quick to point out their folks are doing the fighting (and dying) over there.  All they're asking from the U.S. is more airlift to get soldiers, beans and bullets into the war zone, and tanker support to sustain the air bridge to Mali.  We should also point out that other NATO allies (notably Great Britain, Canada and Denmark) are providing support to the French without charge.

True, various French regimes have sabotaged U.S. interests on multiple occasions, but the Mali request seems tailor-made for the Obama Doctrine of "Leading from Behind."  Instead, Mr. Obama is threatening to undermine the entire operation; without in-flight refueling, it will be impossible for France to sustain the current pace of air and ground operations, giving the rebels a chance to re-group and launch new offensives.

Besides, there's the little matter of how we got here in the first place.  As noted in a previous post, many of the current problems in North Africa are a by-product of last year's revolution in Libya, which was fully supported--politically and militarily--by the Obama Administration.  Now, with arms and fighters from Libya spreading to adjacent countries (and creating more havoc), Mr. Obama seems reluctant to deal with problem he helped create.

It sounds like a page out of the French foreign policy hand book circa 1970-1990, but this time around, it's the USA threatening to botch the entire operation over a few transport and tanker missions.  Sacre bleu! 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Life on the Dole

A few years ago, Natalija Belova emigrated from her native Lithuania to Great Britain.  She has no plans to go home, since the U.K. welfare state provides such a comfortable lifestyle for Ms. Belova and her daughter.   From the U.K. Sun (h/t: Powerline) 

Natalija Belova, 33, told The Sun how she spurns full-time work — yet can afford foreign holidays and buys designer clothes.

The Lithuanian said: “British benefits give me and my daughter a good life.”

She has milked soft-touch Britain for £50,000 in benefits and yesterday said: "I simply take what is given to me."

Overjoyed Natalija told how she lives a life of luxury thanks to our “strange” system, declaring: “It’s important to have nice things and good holidays.”

The graduate, who became a single mum after she arrived here, rakes in more than £1,000 a month in handouts — £14,508 a year — to fund her love of designer clothes, jaunts to the Spanish sun and nightclubbing.

She bragged: “I have a lovely, fully-furnished flat and money to live properly on.

Had she remained in Lithuania, her benefits would be only a fraction of what Belova receives in the U.K.  A college graduate who speaks six languages, Ms. Belova also holds down a part-time job, but is careful to keep her weekly hours below the threshold that would affect her benefits.  And it's all perfectly legal under the British system.

England's welfare rolls exploded during 12 years of Labour rule and now with Conservatives back in power, there are efforts underway to curb benefits.  But progress has been difficult, and the situation will soon grow worse; under European Union rules, Britain will be forced to welcome tens of million additional immigrants from eastern Europe beginning next year, and all will be immediately eligible for the full-range of U.K. welfare benefits.  Currently, new arrivals from that region must have a job in Britain to remain in the country.

If all of this sounds disturbingly familiar, it should.  Under Barack Obama, the number of Americans receiving various forms of government benefits has exploded.  According to a Politico article published last summer, spending for more than 133 billion federal welfare programs has grown by almost $200 billion since Mr. Obama took office four years ago.  The administration has even run ads on Spanish-language TV programs encouraging more Latinos to sign up.

Historically, the welfare system in the U.S. wasn't quite as generous as its European counterparts, but that gap has been closed. James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute illustrated this quite nicely back in July, with a graphic and article depicting the so-called "Welfare Cliff."  Put another way: a worker in a low-paying job (making $29,000 a year) was better off staying in that position--with full welfare benefits--than taking a $69,000 a year job.  Under an analysis conducted by the State of Pennsylvania, the worker making $29,000 a year received a total of $57,327 in net income and benefits--more than their counterpart making $69,000 a year, with net income and benefits (after taxes) of $57,035.

With Mr. Obama entering his second term, it's a good bet that welfare spending will skyrocket again. And by encouraging more Americans to sign up, the President sees an opportunity to create even more Democratic voters, completely beholden to the state for their subsistence.

Happy Inauguration Day.  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Debacle in the Desert, Redux

Despite a busy travel week, we've been following events in Algeria with a great deal of interest.  While accounts of the hostage crisis at the Ain Amenas natural gas complex have varied widely, news from the site has become increasingly grim; at one point, the Algerian government claimed that all the captives had been freed and some of the Americans in the group had been flown to military hospitals in Europe.  But more  recent reports paint a much different picture, as indicated by this AP dispatch:

The Algerian government says 32 militants and 23 captives were killed during the three-day military operation to end the hostage crisis at a natural gas plant in the Sahara (editor: subsequent reports put the number who died at more than 80).

The provisional death toll was issued by the Interior Ministry on Saturday after the special forces operation crushed the last holdout of the militants at the gas refinery, resulting in 11 extremists killed along with seven hostages.

A total of 685 Algerian and 107 foreigner workers were freed over the course of the standoff, which began on Wednesday, the statement added.

The military also confiscated machine guns, rocket launchers, missiles and grenades attached to suicide belts.

The ministry added that the militants involved consisted of 32 men of various nationalities, including three Algerians.  

And don't be surprised if the death toll rises.  As far as we know, there are no western journalists at the Ain Amenas complex (the dateline on the AP article was Algiers, hundreds of miles away).  Reporters are having to rely on whatever the Algerian government decides to share, along with bits of information from governments who had citizens taken captive.  With each new account, the number of hostages listed as killed has increased, and it's common practice in the Middle East to release wildly optimistic version of events (in the immediate aftermath of a crisis), then let the bad news dribble out later.  The result has been a muddled picture--at best--and the real story of what happened in the Algerian desert may not emerge for weeks or months, if ever.

The other noteworthy angle in this tragedy has been the media's relative lack of curiosity regarding the "roots"  of this terrorist operation, and the unilateral response that eventually ended it.  As the Algerian military operation drew to a close, Time openly speculated about security concerns for western oil firms operating in the Sahara desert--with far less emphasis on the geopolitical factors that prompted this week's deadly attack.

"There is no knowing when oil companies will deem it safe to return expatriate staff to Algeria, let alone risk plowing billions into new energy projects; Algeria has been courting Western investment, not only in its hydrocarbon sector but also to finance such renewable-energy plans as solar plants in the vast Algerian Sahara. At minimum, potential investors will now drive a harder bargain, given the additional expenses they would have to incur on security in order to expand their infrastructure in Algeria. “Operating in Algeria has just become more expensive,” the Eurasia Group’s Africa director Philippe de Pontet said in a memo to clients on Friday. “Assets sold in the coming 12 to 18 months with have a significant discount applied.”

Western oil firms have been operating in the Maghreb for decades--and Algeria has extensive experience in fighting terrorists--but this was the first successful attack on a petroleum complex.  Why now?  Well, for starters, there's last year's successful coup in Libya that toppled Mommar Qadhaffi (with U.S. and NATO support).  With the former Libyan dictator dead, many of his Toureg mercenaries returned home, and reportedly participated in the operation at Ain Amenas.  Funny, but we haven't seen a single member of the MSM ask an administration official about our knowledge of this migration, and its impact on regional security.  Likewise, we're waiting for an enterprising reporter to ask oil firms in Algeria if they received any warnings about an increased security threat, stemming from Qadhaffi's collapse in Libya.

There's also the matter of the recent French intervention in Mali, where Islamists threatened to overrun much of the country.  With the arrival of French troops, terrorists began looking for ways to retaliate, and one Islamist communique suggested the gas complex attack was in response for western military action in Mali.  If nothing else, the French incursion pushed more terrorists back into Algeria, and increased the probability of an attack.

While some western leaders praised the Algerian actions, others were privately critical, saying the use of attack helicopters actually increased hostage deaths.  Of course, no one has said what the U.S., Great Britain, France (or other nations) offered in the way of support.  And for that matter, we can't find a single U.S. press report that describes the military assets available in the western Med, assuming the Algerian inquired about assistance.

If all of this sounds a little too familiar, it should.  Back on September 11th, four Americans were killed in a "surprise" attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.  The Obama Administration initially tried to blame the raid on an Internet video that was offensive to Islam.  But as the truth emerged, we quickly learned that the strike was well-planned and coordinated--and that U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens (one of the Americans who died) had been long concerned about the deteriorating situation in Benghazi and our almost non-existent security presence.

In response, Team Obama stonewalled.  The nation was suddenly treated to news of an extramarital affairs by CIA Director David Petraeus, which delayed his testimony.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will finally make it to Capitol Hill this week, after being sidelined by a series of health issues.  And the Director of the FBI finally made it to Benghazi last Thursday, 129 days after the attack.

Expect a similar response on the Algerian crisis.  To be fair, the most recent terror debacle is slightly different from Benghazi; the facility attacked last week is not U.S.-owned (although several Americans were present at the time of the raid).  Additionally, Algeria has a long history of going it alone on terrorist issues, so its possible Algiers would have declined offers of help--if they were ever offered.

But that's not to say that the U.S. didn't play a role in setting the stage for the terror attack.  Events on the global stage don't happen in a vacuum; actions in one locale often have an impact on neighboring regions and states.  That's one reason the terrorists struck in Algeria.  Qadhaffi's fall sent many of his Algerian mercs back home, and the French operation in Mali forced more of them across the border as well.

That doesn't mean the United States is to blame, or even most of the blame.  We are one of many actors influencing events across North Africa. That's one reason our remarkably incurious press corps might want to ask Mr. Obama about our long-term plans in the region.  The current fighting in Mali is likely to get worse (and spread), creating a completely new set of challenges in the Maghreb.  A report in today's Financial Times says the West faces "decades" of guerrilla conflict in North Africa and it's a safe bet that Europe will be looking to the U.S. for leadership.

Memo to all the media swells who will be wining and dining at various inauguration events over the next couple of days.  When you get back to "work" you might ask members of Team Obama about their strategy for North Africa, beyond sending a few surveillance drones, and tankers to refuel French aircraft.  Like Iran, this is another "can" you can only kick so far.      


Remembering "The Man"

In remembrance of St. Louis Cardinals great Stan Musial--who passed away Saturday at the age of 92--we offer this post from 2010.  It was based on a Sports Illustrated article, suggesting that today's game could still learn a lot from Mr. Musial.  Indeed it can.

Still The Man

Monday, January 14, 2013

Higher Ground

It's been six years since China maneuvered an orbital kill vehicle into position and destroyed one of its aging weather satellites, signaling a major advance in its ASAT capabilities.  As Aviation Week noted at the time:

Details emerging from space sources indicate that the Chinese Feng Yun 1C (FY-1C) polar orbit weather satellite launched in 1999 was attacked by an asat system launched from or near the Xichang Space Center.
The attack is believed to have occurred as the weather satellite flew at 530 mi. altitude 4 deg. west of Xichang located in Sichuan province. Xichang is a major Chinese space launch center. 

Although intelligence agencies must complete confirmation of the test, the attack is believed to have occurred at about 5:28 p.m. EST Jan. 11. U. S. intelligence agencies had been expecting some sort of test that day, sources said.

U. S. Air Force Defense Support Program missile warning satellites in geosynchronous orbit would have detected the Xichang launch of the asat kill vehicle and U. S. Air Force Space Command monitored the FY-1C  orbit both before and after the exercise. 

In our own analysis, we noted that the January 2007 event was actually the culmination of a series of tests, aimed at demonstrating a viable ASAT option:  From our own post, written six years ago this week:

Our own contacts within the space community indicate that this was the latest in a series of Chinese ASAT tests, using the weather satellite as a target. In each successive test, the Chinese managed to get the kill vehicle closer to the weather bird, before finally executing a kill sequence on 11 January. The ASAT could have disabled the target satellite by ramming it, or releasing smaller "pellets" that perform the same function. Limited reporting indicates that the weather satellite was in "orbital distress" after the test, that it was not completely destroyed by the ASAT. 

Last week's test comes less than a year after China flashed a ground-based laser at a U.S. reconnaissance satellite, suggesting that it can also use that technology to disable overhead platforms. The ASAT program is believed to be one of the most important in the PRC military, and has advanced steadily over the past 10 years. 

The implications of these recent events is clear. Spaced-based communications and ISR are the backbone of our war-fighting capabilities, and play an increasingly important role in the global economy. Successful, pre-emptive attacks on our low earth orbit (LEO) satellites would have a devastating effect, both militarily and economically. 

Predictably, China's ASAT program has continued apace since the 2007 test.  There is growing speculation that Beijing will conduct another major ASAT test in the coming weeks, illustrating a growing ability to disrupt, degrade or even destroy elements of the U.S. military satellite constellation, which provides everything from intelligence imagery and communications support, to GPS navigation and the detection of enemy missile launches.  As Reuters reports:

Gregory Kulacki, a respected researcher with the Union of Concerned Scientists, reported earlier this month on the group's website that there was "a strong possibility" of a new anti-satellite test by China within the next few weeks.

He said Chinese sources had told him in November that an announcement about an upcoming anti-satellite test had been circulated within the Chinese government, and a high-ranking U.S. defense official confirmed in December that Washington was "very concerned" about an imminent Chinese anti-satellite test.


Sources within the U.S. government and outside experts said there was no immediate evidence pointing to the preparations for the type of satellite or rocket launches used by China for past anti-satellite tests at lower orbits.

But they said Beijing could test its anti-satellite weapons in other ways that would be harder to detect, such as by jamming a satellite's signals from the ground or issuing a powerful electromagnetic pulse from one satellite to disable another.

China could also maneuver two satellites very close together at higher orbits, replicating actions it has already taken in lower orbits in August 2010 and November 2010. Such activities could be used to perform maintenance or test docking capabilities for human spaceflight, but could clearly be used for more destructive purposes as well, they said.

That comment about "higher orbits' is particularly telling.  While some types of spy satellites operate in low earth orbit, China understands it must expand its ASAT capabilities to higher altitudes, improving its ability to target a wider range of U.S. space platforms.  Without those platforms, our ability to wage war quickly grinds to a halt.

But the U.S. hasn't been completely inactive in the ASAT arena.  In early 2008, a U.S. Navy cruiser downed one of our old spy satellites before it could fall from orbit, using specially-modified SM-3 surface-to-air missiles.  According to U.S. officials, the SM-3 can hit satellites as high as 310 miles above the earth, and with a growing number of ships outfitted for missile defense, the Navy has an effective (though limited) ASAT capability that can literally be deployed around the globe.

And there may be a newer arrow in our ASAT quiver. Last December, the Air Force's secretive X-37B unmanned space plane launched on another mission.  So far, the platform has flown operationally on at least three occasions, remaining on orbit for more than a year during one mission. ..The X-37B has a 7' x 4' payload bay, large enough to carry a variety of sensor platforms, or even some sort of weapons package.  An X-37B was launched from Cape Canaveral on 11 December 2012.  Details of the mission have been (predictably) sketchy, but there has been speculation that the X-37 may be used to monitor Chinese military activities, including ASAT test preparations.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has been consulting with our European allies over a proposed treaty that would severely limit our ASAT capabilities.  China, on the other hand, has declined several U.S. overtures to discuss potential curbs on military activity in space.  And why not?  No reason for Beijing to discuss possible restrictions when the U.S. seems committed to a policy of unilateral disarmament in space.  As the X-37 circles the earth with its unknown payload, we can always hope that our "official position" is some sort of deception operation.  But don't get your hopes up. This is the same administration that favors nuclear disarmament, so why not extend that policy to the high frontier, too.                


Sunday, January 06, 2013

Beijing's Quest for Global Reach

A prototype of China's new Y-20 strategic airlifter was recently detected by commercial imagery satellites.  The discovery affirms Beijing's interest in developing long-range mobility forces (GeoEye imagery via The Danger Room).

It doesn't take a strategist to understand that China views itself as the superpower of the 21st Century.  With an economy hitting on all cylinders; a rapidly expanding technological base and the money to fund an endless array of military projects, Beijing is accumulating the air, ground, naval and cyber assets considered necessary for global dominance.

In recent years, China has begun sea trials for its first fleet carrier (true, it was acquired from Russia and refurbished, but more are on the way); a fifth-generation fighter is undergoing flight testing, and new ballistic missiles and submarines are entering operational service as well.  Couple that with improvements in ISR and air defense, and it's clear that Beijing is building military forces that can exert influence on the world stage.

But projecting power means getting your forces to the right place--and in a hurry.  And historically, that has been a weakness of the People's Liberation Army and its various elements.  One reason that Beijing has never followed through with an invasion of Taiwan is that it lacks the amphibious capability to ferry enough troops, supplies and reinforcements across the strait.

China's mobility problem is underscored by the relative proximity of Taiwan.  If you can't project sufficient force across a narrow strait, then how can you sustain operations at much greater distances?  Development of a blue-water Navy will remedy this problem to some degree, the PRC still needs strategic airlift, to rapidly deploy military assets across long distances.

But Beijing has a plan for that as well.  According to David Axe at the Danger Room, imagery satellites have recently detected a prototype of China's new Y-20 transport at an airfield associated with aircraft development and testing.  As he writes:

A week after the publication of blurry photographs depicting what appears to be China’s first long-range jet transport, Danger Room has obtained satellite imagery of the new plane at an airfield in central China.
The images, acquired by the GeoEye 1 and IKONOS spacecraft — both belonging to commercial satellite operator GeoEye headquartered in Washington, D.C. — corroborate the general layout of the Xian Aircraft Corporation Y-20, the existence of which has been confirmed by Beijing. They also underscore the emerging consensus among Western experts that the Y-20, while outwardly impressive, could lack the performance of even much older American, Russian and European transports.

The IKONOS image is dated Dec. 25. It shows the Y-20 outside a large hangar at Yanliang airfield, home of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s test establishment. The base is crowded with examples of the PLAAF’s other main transports, including Y-8 medium airlifters and, apparently, tanker versions of the aged H-6 bomber — both types of which could in theory be replaced by the Y-20, ostensibly giving China the same global military reach the U.S. and other advanced nations have enjoyed for half a century.  

If the Y-20 bears a strange resemblance to the U.S. C-17, it should.  Through espionage, China obtained copies of the C-17's blueprints several years ago, significantly reducing research and development time.  But several western experts tell Mr. Axe that the new Chinese transport is still lacking in a critical area--the advanced, high-bypass turbofan engines needed to power an advanced airlifter.  The engines mounted on the prototype are believed to be older, Russian D-30s.  Without better engine technology, the Y-20 would fall well short of the C-17 in terms of payload and range, and might not even match the performance of older U.S. and European transports.

Still, the Y-20 represents an important step forward for China's military.  The same, vast spy network that acquired plans for the Globemaster III is working overtime on advanced transport engine technology.  Beijing will eventually gain the high-bypass turbofans needed for the Y-20, no matter how long it takes.  So, that technology gap may not be as insurmountable as many believe.

However, it's not quite time to put the PLAAF's airlift division in the same category as Air Mobility Command (AMC), which is responsible for airlift and tanker operations in the USAF.  AMC and its predecessors have been perfecting airlift and in-flight refueling for almost 70 years, developing the doctrine and procedures required for transporting troops, equipment and supplies over long distances.

And that raises other issues worth exploring, as they relate to China's quest for a global airlift capability.  For example, how much progress has the PLAAF made in developing the organizations and equipment needed to load transport aircraft at their departure point and destination?  Does the Chinese Air Force have an equivalent of AMC's Tanker Airlift Control Center, which synchronizes those operations around the world, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Tanker support represents another weak link in China's air mobility plan.  While the Y-20 can provide a common airframe for a variety of missions, including airborne warning and control; SIGINT collection, airlift and air refueling, introduction of those variants (based on the new design) may be a decade away; until then, the PLAAF will make do with tankers and special mission platform based on older Russian designs, such as the TU-16 and the IL-76.  Currently, China has no more than a handful of those aircraft optimized for tanking and other mobility missions, severely limiting their ability to project power.

Put another way, China's Air Force is many years away from achieving the capabilities AMC has been demonstrating for decades.  Lest we forget, it was airlift and tanker forces that created (and maintained) the "air bridge" that saved Israel in 1973; ferried tons of equipment to the Middle East in 1990 and again in 2001 and 2003, and sustained the "long war" against terrorism with airlift and tanker ops in the Gulf Region and Afghanistan.  And if you want to go back even further, it was airlift that "saved" hundreds of thousands of Germans in 1948, during the Berlin Airlift.

China clearly understands its current deficiencies in strategic air lift and in-flight refueling.  But correcting those problems will require much more than producing significant numbers of Y-20s, equipped with advanced turbofan engines.  Establishing a true, PLAAF equivalent of AMC will take a much broader effort in areas ranging from cargo handling and coordination, to the in-flight refueling of large numbers of aircraft, at extended ranges from Chinese installations.  Put another way, building the aircraft may be the easy part; creating the rest of the air mobility system is the toughest part of the proposition.

Yet, it would be a mistake to underestimate China's ability to create a viable, strategic airlift and air refueling capability.  In November, Gordon Chang of Forbes and National Review noted a visit by a senior Chinese official to Lajes Field in the Azores.  Long an important U.S. military facility, the airbase may be targeted for down-sizing (or even closure) in the next round of Pentagon budget cuts.

Enter China.  Beijing has long been cultivating ties with Portugal (which controls the Azores) and has indicated its interest in establishing a presence if the U.S. leaves.  If that happens, China would immediately have an important outpost in the Atlantic (emphasis ours), and the recent sighting of the Y-20 confirms Beijing's intent to develop the assets required to project and sustain power far from the western Pacific.