Clarification: China has yet to build an Underground Facility at Gonggar

Satellite Imagery acquired on 03OCT2018 by Planet Labs

New infrastructure upgrades were completed at Lhasa-Gonggar earlier this year, satellite imagery from Planet Labs shows. Workers at the civil-military airfield widened a road and built an additional parking apron near the base of the mountain.

Earlier this month, India’s Hindustan Times reported that China had built an underground facility to house fighter aircraft at the airport. Quoting three unnamed officials, the report said that an underground hangar was large enough to hold up to 36 aircraft.

That assertion however is inaccurate. Imagery shows the new parking apron with markings indicative of parking positions for up to thirty-six aircraft, but does not show activity to tunnel into the mountain to create a hardened hangar. To date aircraft have not relocated to the apron nor have any additional aircraft deployed to the airbase as a result.

The new apron was constructed between October 2017 and July 2018 and is the second to be added to the airfield since the Doklam crisis erupted last year. The first, measuring approximately 24,000 square meters, was built adjacent to the existing military ramp during the height of the standoff.

Given the July completion date, the release of the information through the Hindustan Times suggests a Government of India strategic communication effort. The need to show ongoing concern over a recent flash point comes amidst New Delhi’s announcement to acquire the S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system.  Commentary surrounding India’s request for a U.S. waiver—avoiding the 2017 sanctions (CAATSA) against Russia—have featured prominently in India’s press.

India plans to acquire up to five S-400 regiment, each comprised of two batteries with each battery equipped with four launcher and associated support equipment. Estimated at $6 billion, the air defense deal has been in negotiation for several years. If completed, India would become the second foreign operator of the advanced SAM system after China. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force took delivery of their first regiment in April 2018.

Bottom Line
Despite expanding defense ties between India and the U.S., it is still unknown what the Trump administration will decide regarding India’s waiver request. This latest strategic communication effort is likely indicative of New Delhi’s uncertainty.

Posted in China, English, General Knowledge, India, Intelligence, Russia | Leave a comment

Iran: New SAM Site At Masshad

Digitalglobe imagery acquired on 05SEPT2018

Digitalglobe imagery acquired on 05SEPT2018

Satellite imagery shows some new developments at Iran’s Masshad civil-military airfield. A new surface to air missile (SAM) site has been constructed on the north side of the runway to support Khatam al-Anbia’s S-300PMU-2 deployments. Between 2017-2018, Iran jumped the S-300 system to the airbase on three occasions which have coincided with visits by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The first deployment occurred between June and July 2017 when the Supreme Leader was speaking to the Iranian Judiciary in the city. The second deployment took place between March and April 2018 when Khamenei addressed the Assembly of Experts during Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. And the most recent deployment occurred between July and August 2018 when the Ayatollah attended the ritual ceremony of clearing dust from the tomb of Imam Ridha.

Components observed typically include two 5P85TE2 transporter-erector-launcher (TEL), a 30N6E2 (Tomb Stone) target engagement radar, and the 96L6E target acquisition radar. All components were visible at the airbase except during July 2017 when the 96L6E did not deploy. On all three deployments, the system components relocated from their position at the Tehran-Mehrabad International Airport located in western Tehran. Handheld video suggests they were transported via highway.

In addition to Mehrabad, Iran’s other active S-300PMU-2 sites are located at Bushehr, Khavar Shahr, and Esfahan. A full-strength Iranian battery is comprised of four TELs. Masshad, located in the northeast, is approximately 75 kilometers (km) and 170 km from the borders of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, respectively. The S-300PMU-2 has an engagement range of 200 km.

Bottom Line
The new construction activity suggests that Iran will continue with deploying the system out to the airbase. The current pad configuration suggests that it will maintain the less than full strength deployment.

Posted in English, Intelligence, Iran | Tagged , | Leave a comment

New Infrastructure at the UAE’s al-Hamra Military Airfield

Imagery acquired by Planet Labs on 23 Sept 2018.

al-Hamra Airport (Imagery acquired by Planet Labs on 23 Sept 2018).

The UAE has added eight new aircraft shelters and a weapon storage area to a reserve airfield on the coast, commercial satellite imagery shows. The activity suggests that the UAE may maintain a detachment at the reserve airfield to rapidly respond to potential threats. Assets routinely deployed at al-Hamra include the AH-64 Apache and the UH-60 Black Hawk. The location and other nearby facilities are frequently used for military exercises.

The airfield—located less than 100 km from the Qatar border—sits between some significant civilian infrastructure. To the east lies the Shuweihat power complex featuring three combined cycle power plants with co-located desalination. The three plants have a nameplate capacity of 4,520 megawatts. Adjacent to the power plants is the Ruweis Refinery complex operated by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). ADNOC plans to expand refinery operations and petrochemical production over the next five years with an additional $45 billion investment. Ruweis features the country’s single largest refinery.

To the west of the airfield is the $20 billion four unit Barakah nuclear power plant. Just last year, South Korean workers completed Unit 1 and reported that fuel would be loaded into the reactor, pending regulatory approval. In August 2018, Unit 2 went through hot functional tests that simulate the temperatures and pressures that the reactor will experience during normal operation. When the first reactor goes online in 2019, the UAE will become the region’s second consumer of nuclear energy after Iran.

These developments continue to put high value on coastal protection, as perhaps exemplified by the recent deployment activity. In 2007, the UAE stood up a little known agency, the Critical Infrastructure and Coastal Protection Authority, whose mission is to anticipate and guard against threats to high value infrastructure. The agency routinely works with other government authorities and the armed forces to accomplish its mission.

With the UAE’s ongoing involvement in hostilities in Yemen, external threats to the Gulf country, particularly to soft targets, remain a concern. Since December 2017, Houthi rebels have communicated their intent to target the country in strikes. The most recent threat was made in August when UAE forces moved on the port city of Hudaida.

Bottom Line
As the UAE comes under increasing external threat, bolstering military elements on the border and near significant infrastructure will likely continue.

Posted in Armed Forces, English, Security Policy, UAE | Leave a comment

EUTM Mali’s problematic strategy – more rebuilding rather than fielding an army

by Björn Müller (Facebook / Twitter). Björn is journalist in Berlin focusing on security policy and geopolitics.

Comparing weapons: A German EUTM soldier and a recruit of the FAMA special forces during a training lesson near camp Koulikoro, Mali (photo: Bjoern Mueller / all rights reserved).

Comparing weapons: A German EUTM soldier and a recruit of the FAMA special forces during a training lesson near camp Koulikoro, Mali (photo: Bjoern Mueller / all rights reserved).

The European Union’s effort to beef up Mali’s armed forces (Forces armées et de sécurité du Mali, FAMA) since 2013 is in its fourth mandate. Germany, one of the primary nations in this military training mission, has prolonged the engagement of its armed forces — the Bundeswehr — in the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) Mali until the end of May 2019.

EUTM Mali’s broad goal is “to contribute to the training of the Malian Armed Forces“. In 2012, Mali’s armed forces were unable to deal with insurgent Tuaregs and Islamists due to a combination of bad leadership, inept tactics and insufficient material. Whole units either fled or were massacred. As a result, younger officers became frustrated and revolted against the military brass and the government. The chain of command broke up and the army imploded. Only a military intervention by France (Operation Serval) prevented the Islamists from breaking into the capital Bamako. In the summer of 2013, a new government was elected. A rather unstable peace process with the Tuareg rebels is now underway. The state’s lack of monopoly on the use of force means that more and more self-defense militias are emerging across the country, and the fight against jihadists is uspcaling from North to Middle Mali. In this unsecure environment FAMA is once again trying to gain a foothold in the country.

Mali’s military reform plan
The scheme is therefore ambitious. Mali’s government implemented a special law for the FAMA’s buildup in 2015. It aims to double the size of the regular army from 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers by 2019. By then, the army should have a proper command structure and be capable of fighting its enemies by itself. The buildup plan also envisions an 850-man strong bataillon for peace operations. The whole is accompanied by an extensive procurement plan. Key investments include $326 million for combat vehicles, $163 million for refitting the equipment of maintenance and logistic units and $60 million for a squadron (6 planes) of A-29 Super Tucano light attack planes as well as the training of its pilots by the Brazilian A-29 manufacturer Embraer.

The FAMA shows better standing in fights
FAMA is still far from its high expectation of being able to independently lead the asymmetric war against jihadists and insurgents in its own country. The goals for 2019 are therefore unrealistic. Nevertheless, according to European military officers and experts, there are small advances at the tactical level. As stated by Italian EUTM instructors for close air support (CAS), Malian special forces conducted their first standalone CAS operation against Jihadists in the North with a Mil Mi-24D helicopter.

Lieutnant-Colonel Thomas Gottsche, the commander of the previous EUTM Bundeswehr contingent remarked that a paratroop platoon, which was in EUTM training before, did a good job during a combat deployment in North Mali: “One could see that the individual shooters do good cover work and the group leaders lead their men well.” According to Laurent Touchard, an expert on African armies, since 2015 the FAMA units show a better standing in combat, for example in preventing a night attack on the city of Boni.

Very motivated young FAMA soldiers (photo: Bjoern Mueller / all rights reserved).

Very motivated young FAMA soldiers (photo: Bjoern Mueller / all rights reserved).

EUTM training concept
The EUTM tactical training concept works as follows: On the one hand, the EUTM provides specialized knowledge, like sniper training, in its central training camp at Koulikoro near the capital Bamako. On the other hand, trainers from various EU armies travel to the locations of FAMA’s main military formations — which consist of eight battalions of about 600 men each — to train officers, NCOs and soldiers for a two-week period. Then the Malian officers and NCOs train their soldiers themselves, coached by the EUTM instructors. EUTM’s focus is on “train the trainers”.

“The challenge is to make Western leadership principles, such as independent thinking and acting among soldiers, effective in Mali’s army. Here they often have a very rigid pattern, where each step is dictated by the supervisor,” explained Colonel Busch, former Deputy Commander of the EUTM Mali. With its leadership training the EU hopes for a multiplier effect for implementing modern army structures within the FAMA. This tactical approach is supported by the EUTM advisory task force, working with the Malian general staff at the institutional level, for example, by helping to implement a modern EDP system to manage FAMA’s human resources.

EUTM Mali’s shortcomings
Unfortunatelly, the EU concept has its weaknesses. For example, there are no large-scale joint maneuvers under EUTM guidance and support despite of the importance of joint operations for a small force like the FAMA in a country of the size bigger than Central Europe. German soldiers at EUTM also point to the very poor equipment the Malians have as well as lack of ammunition. Material aid from the Europeans does not include weaponry. Even after years of cooperation, the EUTM does not know how the Malian army conducted their training before the EUTM trainers took over. In addition, there is currently no monitoring of the training’s success. The EUTM mandates does not foresee European instructors accompanying EUTM-trained FAMA units in operations. Mali’s armed forces inform their EU partners only at irregular meetings about their combat experiences — based, of course, on their own assessments.

German paramedics are responsible for keeping the camp free of venomous snakes (photo: Bjoern Mueller / all rights reserved).

German paramedics are responsible for keeping the camp free of venomous snakes (photo: Bjoern Mueller / all rights reserved).

The EUTM strategy and its hurdles
Despite these shortcomings, the EU has no intention to develop the EUTM concept in the direction of combat. The master plan for the fourth mandate is a de-facto attempt to strengthen FAMA’s inner constitution. Permanent European trainers are installed at Mali officers‘ and NCOs‘ schools to develop their leadership training. According to the German MoD courses are under preparation.

Instead of arming Mali’s campaign against asymmetric enemies, the EU is trying to strengthen FAMA’s backbone by funding the renovation of military infrastructure such as airbases. The Germans are planing to push their EUTM resources into the training of logistic specialists, mechanics and lorry drivers.

So far, it is unclear wether the EU strategy will succeed. Since 2013, there have been cases of unrest and rebellion within FAMA units during their EUTM training, such as soldiers ignoring instructions or boycotting graduation ceremonies. This is mainly due to the mistrust of the soldiers against their officers – for example, because of assumed wage deductions. Other issues include EU’s unsuccessful pushing for the development of a clear military doctrine for the “new FAMA”. According to a diplomat in Bamako, the army is divided into supporters and opponents on the crucial question of reintegrating Tuareg deserters from 2012 into FAMA, an important obligation of the peace process. Moreover, not all military circles in Mali consider the increasing European interference in their defense institutions a good idea. “Not everyone in Mali’s forces is excited about it. There are a few officers, who think there is too much EUTM in Mali’s forces. National pride probably plays a role here. Here we still have some convincing to do,” explained Colonel Busch.

Moreover, there is little coordination between the European approach, which focuses on FAMA’s reform, and additional US approaches. “With EUTM providing support at the tactical level, the US deemed that it would be best to apply our security cooperation efforts at the institutional level”, told the US Africa Command (US AFRICOM) to the author. Accordingly, the Americans took only a seleceted class of ten Malian officers under their wing, currently educated at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. “These officers, upon graduation, will become core members of a Malian National Security Staff, and they will be instrumental in developing Mali’s future National Security Strategy as well other accompanying doctrinal documents,” US AFRICOM said.

With the intensification of the fight against jihadists and insurgents in Mali and the Sahel, the EUTM mandate will be crucial in determining whether the EUTM’s focus on shaping the FAMA into a modern defensive institution rather than forming an army for the battlefield is a solid strategy.

"Ghost city" - an abandoned village near of camp Koulikoro - used by EUTM for urban warfare training. The former residents left the village for alleged occupation by ghosts of dead (photo: Bjoern Mueller / all rights reserved).

“Ghost city” – an abandoned village near of camp Koulikoro – used by EUTM for urban warfare training. The former residents left the village for alleged occupation by ghosts of dead (photo: Bjoern Mueller / all rights reserved).

Posted in Armed Forces, Björn Müller, English, International, Mali, Peacekeeping, Security Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Indonesia Submarine Quay and Pier Damaged During Tsunami

Left: Planet imagery of the naval base in Palu Bay dated 29 Sept. 2018 / Right: 22 Sept. 2018

Satellite imagery acquired by Planet Labs shows significant damage to a recently renovated naval base in Palu Bay. Plans to berth the Indonesian Navy’s submarines at the facility will be delayed until workers make repairs and clear underwater debris. While the pier that was recently expanded remains intact, the quay wall and environmental shelter covering the submarine berthing area have been destroyed. On 28 September 2018 waves from a tsunami struck the naval base overtopping the quay wall where enough pressure was created to loosen the backfill and overturn the structure forcing it away from shore and into the water. As a result, the majority of the wall is submerged and no longer visible. Other structures near the shore also appear damaged on Planet’s 3 meter imagery.

To date, Indonesian authorities report that more than 1,500 people have been killed and over 100,000 others displaced by the natural disaster.  More than 70,000 homes were destroyed or damaged after a 7.5 magnitude earthquake launched waves of up to six-meters high that slammed into Sulawesi at approximately 500 miles per hour.

Posted in English, Indonesia | Leave a comment

UAV Infrastructure Noted at the UAE’s al-Safran Airbase

Planet imagery acquired on 04 January 2018 of al-Safran airbase.

Planet imagery acquired on 04 January 2018 of al-Safran airbase.

Two US-built primary satellite links and a ground control station (GCS) were relocated to the UAE’s al-Safran airbase situated south of Madinat Zayed, imagery from Planet Labs shows. They likely belong to the recently acquired RQ-1E Predator-XP UAV the country purchased in 2013. The Predator XP is the unarmed licensed export variant of the General Atomics Predator series. A GCS and a primary satellite link were observed at the airbase by December 2017. We are currently unaware of the U.S. operating additional UAVs in the UAE outside of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawks at Al Dhafra.

Imagery acquired in March also shows some additional construction activity nearby of what appear to be the footprint of four towers at the airbase. Similar towers have been erected at locations that support U.S.-made drones to enhance line of sight communication. These towers may suggest that the Predator XP could be relocated to the airbase on an ongoing basis. Initial clearing and leveling activity was noted in January 2018 after an expansion of the main parking apron and the erection of six new aircraft shelters in 2017.

The Predator XP is equipped with multiple sensor systems including EO/IR cameras and a multi-mode synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) for day/night and wide area search operation. To locate moving vehicles, the platform has ground moving target indicator (GMTI) and can identify vessels at sea with automatic identification system (AIS). They are designed for automatic takeoff and landing, have an endurance of 35 hours, and can fly up to 25,000 feet (more than 7,500 km).

Recently, it was revealed that the UAE likely took delivery of the AVIC Wing Loong II UAV at Qusahwirah, making the Middle Eastern country the platform’s first export customer. Qusahwirah appears to be dedicated to UAV operations. The airbase is in the process of being expanded with additional aircraft shelters and weapon storage areas for the strike-capable aircraft. It’s possible the Predator XP are being relocated to al-Safran due to their delivery.

The Predator XP was first observed in operation by the UAE public earlier this year at the Unmanned Systems Exhibition 2018. The “live-fly” portion of the event took place on February 27, 2018 out at Al Ain International Airport. The flight took place almost a year after the UAE took delivery of the General Atomics aircraft in a reported USD 198 million deal.

Posted in Armed Forces, Drones, English, UAE | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Potential Crisis of Secession in Yemen

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is an analyst and journalist specializing in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A handful of Western policymakers have long argued for the necessity of partitioning the Middle East, tending to cite the examples of Iraq and Syria amid sectarian conflicts in both countries. Few, however, have discussed Yemen, a country with a half-century history of division.

The Cold War saw Yemen partitioned into the Yemen Arab Republic, more often dubbed North Yemen, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a Soviet-sponsored communist state better known as South Yemen. An alliance between Emirati generals and Yemeni secessionists driven by the Yemeni Civil War might have laid the groundwork for South Yemen’s once-unlikely return.

A map shows areas of control in Yemen as of February 19, 2018. In addition to fighting Ansar Allah, pro-Saudi coalition forces have encountered insurgencies by southern separatists backed by the UAE. and jihadi groups Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

A map shows areas of control in Yemen as of February 19, 2018. In addition to fighting Ansar Allah, pro-Saudi coalition forces have encountered insurgencies by southern separatists backed by the UAE. and jihadi groups Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Four years ago, when Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels ousted the Yemeni government from Sana’a and Saudi Arabia launched an intervention to blunt the extent of Houthi advances, the UAE looked for new allies to secure its sphere of influence there. The UAE found them in the Southern Movement, or al-Hirak, a collective of Yemeni secessionists intent on reviving South Yemen. They had founded their political movement in 2007 but failed to gain much traction since then.

In an ambitious military and political gamble, the UAE promised to arm al-Hirak in exchange for al-Hirak’s support against the Houthis, whom the secessionists already considered a northern threat to southern autonomy. This arrangement proved critical to Emirati ambitions in Yemen, for it allowed the UAE to project its influence in Aden, a Hirak stronghold and the largest city still under nominal Yemeni control. The motley alliance also undermined the authority of the Yemeni government, which came to depend on secessionists who, by definition, opposed the concept of its unitary state.

For its part, al-Hirak now enjoys more legitimacy than at any point in the two decades after South Yemen’s 1994 fall to North Yemen in a civil war. Emboldened by Emirati support, Hirak members installed their flags on Yemeni government buildings in Aden in 2015. In 2017, they wrote an open letter to the United Nations Security Council arguing for South Yemen’s right to self-determination. While little suggests that the international community has paid any heed to al-Hirak’s provocations, these moves show that Emirati sponsorship has afforded the political movement ambition and confidence.

As al-Hirak grows more powerful, however, signs of tensions between it and its sponsors have begun to appear. In early May, Hirak leader Hassan Baoum demanded that Emirati soldiers withdraw from the Yemeni island of Socotra; the Emirati occupation of Socotra had enraged Yemenis across the political spectrum. Meanwhile this June in Aden, Hirak politician Dr. Jafar Muhammad al-Shalali claimed that well-armed Emirati commandos raided his home, prompting him to demand “an investigation” into an incident that speaks to the fraying alliance between al-Hirak and the UAE.

By empowering the very secessionists now contesting its control, the UAE’s power play might have backfired, loosening its sphere of influence and providing an opportunity for South Yemen to return. Whether or not al-Hirak gains diplomatic recognition for its secessionist ambitions — a dubious scenario — al-Hirak’s growing strength has given it the opportunity to execute its vision of a sovereign state on the ground. This possibility bodes ill for the Emirati sphere of influence in Yemen.

Several other Emirati actions in the Yemeni Civil War have already attracted unwelcome attention. Last year, an investigation by the Associated Press revealed that Emirati officers and Emirati-trained militias were torturing detainees in prisoner-of-war camps across the south of Yemen — though the report failed to detail whether those militias included Hirak fighters. This year, the same news agency reported that the UAE had removed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from several battlefronts not by fighting the American-labeled terrorist organization but by paying it to leave.

If Emirati sponsorship enables al-Hirak to launch a war of independence, the UAE will find itself embroiled in another controversy and may conclude that the pros of undercutting the Yemeni government, the UAE’s nominal ally, by supporting al-Hirak no longer outweigh the cons. The United States, the UAE’s most important ally, would also likely take issue with the partition of Yemen. The UAE and the US have coordinated their campaigns against Sunni militants in the south of Yemen, but al-Hirak’s actions endanger that relationship, and the UAE no doubt values the US far more than it does al-Hirak.

In effect, the Houthis and their Emirati, Saudi, and Yemeni opponents have already partitioned Yemen. The Houthis hold Sana’a as well as the north and west of the country while the Saudi-led coalition dominates Aden, the east, and the south. When al-Hirak decides to recreate South Yemen, it just has to seize territory under the control of its allies and the Yemeni government, which can barely defend itself. Al-Hirak even attacked a commencement at an Aden military academy aligned with the Yemeni government in mid-August, signaling the growing resolve of the secessionists.

The Yemeni government represents a paradox. On the one hand, it represents the last hope for a unitary state in Yemen. On the other, the Yemeni government depends on the military support of self-interested secessionists and their Emirati patrons — as well as Saudi Arabia. The longer the Yemeni Civil War lasts, the greater al-Hirak’s chances of rebuilding South Yemen.

As Saudi Arabia focuses on fighting the Houthis in the north and west of Yemen, the UAE must consider what its support for al-Hirak has wrought in the country’s east and south. The chaos of the Yemeni Civil War has diminished the authority of the Yemeni government and enabled the rise of Sunni militancy, dynamics that will allow al-Hirak to reconstruct South Yemen from the wreckage.

Policymakers interested in the realities of partition need only look as far as Yemen, a country that may soon devolve into two. The UAE and the Yemeni Civil War have presented al-Hirak the ultimate opportunity to engineer South Yemen’s return. Flush with money and weaponry, the secessionists have all the tools that they need to divide the country and take Yemen back to the Cold War. At this point, it seems more than likely that only American, Emirati, or Saudi intervention could stop them.

Posted in Austin Michael Bodetti, English, Security Policy, Terrorism, Yemen | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

F-35: Hightech Kampfjet oder 1,5 Billionen US$ Desaster?

von Roger Näbig (Twitter / LinkedIn). Er arbeitet als Jurist und freier Journalist in Berlin mit dem Fokus auf globalen Konflikten, Verteidigung, Sicherheit, Militärpolitik, Rüstungstechnik & Kriegsvölkerrecht. Darüber hinaus hält er Vorträge zu verteidigungspolitischen Themen. For an English version see here.

F-35A off the coast of Northwest Florida (photo: U.S. Air Force by Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen [Public domain]).

F-35A off the coast of Northwest Florida (photo: U.S. Air Force by Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen [Public domain]).

Es ist das teuerste Beschaffungsprogramm für Kampfflugzeuge in der Militärgeschichte: F-35 Lightning II, so der offizielle Name, ist das von der Firma Lockheed Martin für die US Air Force (USAF), US Navy (USN) und das US Marine Corps (USMC), im Zuge des Joint Strike Fighter Programms, gemeinsam entwickelte Tarnkappen-Mehrzweckkampfflugzeug der 5. Generation, das die F-16 Falcon, F-18 Hornet, AV-8B Harrier II und A-10 Warthog in den US Luftstreitkräften ablösen soll. Während die ‘A’ Version der USAF konventionell startet und landet (CTOL: Conventional Take-Off and Landing), handelt es sich bei der ‘B’ um eine für das USMC und deren amphibische Angriffsschiffe eigens entwickelte, kurzstartende und vertikal landende Variante (STOVL: Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing) während die ‘C’ Version von Flugzeugträgern der USN aus eingesetzt wird (CV: Carrier Variant). Bis zum Jahr 2070 wird die Beschaffung, der Betrieb und die Wartung der rund 2.400 Kampfflugzeuge Kosten in Höhe von ca. 1,5 Billionen US$ verschlingen.

Die F-35 soll zum Exportschlager werden
Im Gegensatz zum Stealth-Luftüberlegenheitsjäger F-22 Raptor war und ist die F-35 von Anfang an für den Export vorgesehen gewesen. Acht weitere Länder kaufen nicht nur die F-35, sondern beteiligen sich zudem aktiv an der Gesamtfinanzierung des Projekts sowie am Bau des Kampfflugzeuges: Großbritannien, Italien, Australien, Kanada, Norwegen, Dänemark, Niederlande und die Türkei. Israel verfügt bei dem Projekt über eine Sonderstellung, weil es die F-35 als einziges Land mit eigener Avionik und Software ausrüsten darf und die Wartung selbst übernimmt. Japan und Korea schließlich sind reine Käuferländer. Trotz dieser internationalen Kooperation ist das Projekt sieben Jahre im Verzug und bislang mit $163 Mrd. über dem ürsprünglich veranschlagten Budget. Jeder Kampfjet der Version ‘A’ kostet aktuell ca. $95 Mio., die ‘B’ und ‘C’ sogar rund $120 Mio. Während bei Beginn der Entwicklungsphase die Planer noch eine 80%ige Übereinstimmung der Bauteile für die ‘A’, ‘B und ‘C’ Varianten zur Reduzierung der Wartungskosten vorgesehen hatten, verblieben davon schließlich versionsabhängig nur noch 27 bis 43%. Gründe dafür waren u.a. die Wünsche des USMC nach einer STOVL-Fähigkeit, um auch die veralteten, senkrechtstartenden AV-8B Kampfjets zu ersetzen, sowie der USN nach größeren, anklappbaren Tragflächen mit mehr Treibstoffzuladung und einem verstärkten Fahrwerk für den Einsatz auf Flugzeugträgern. Die USAF war da anfangs etwas genügsamer: Sie wollte zunächst lediglich ihre F-16 und A-10 ersetzen, wobei da noch die Beschaffung einer größeren Zahl von F-22 geplant war, die sich dann später aus Kostengründen nicht realisieren ließ. Die hierdurch entstandene Lücke bei Luftüberlegenheitsjägern soll die F-35 für die USAF nun auch noch schließen.

U.S. Government [Public domain]

U.S. Government [Public domain]

Die deutsche Luftwaffe wünscht sich die F-35 als Ersatz für Tornado
Ende letzten Jahres plädierte der ehemalige Inspekteur der Luftwaffe Karl Müllner indirekt für die F-35 als Ersatz für die überalterten 85 deutschen Tornado Mehrzweckkampfflugzeuge. Die Luftwaffe benötige nach den Worten Müllners ein Kampfflugzeug, das bei geringer Radarsignatur feindliche Ziele aus großer Entfernung bekämpfen könne. Für eine gänzliche Neuentwicklung sei es schon zu spät. Das Verteidigungsministerium erklärte im Gegensatz hierzu, einen weiterentwickelten Eurofighter Typhoon als Ersatz für die Tornado zu präferieren und prüft wohl nur nachrangig auch die Beschaffung der F-35, F-15 oder F/A-18 (“‘F-35’ für die Bundeswehr?: Luftwaffe benennt Anforderungen an ‘Tornado’-Nachfolger“, Spiegel Online, 08.11.2017). General Müllner wurde am 29.5.2018 vorzeitig in den Ruhestand geschickt. Politisch und militärisch heikel ist die Beschaffung schon deshalb, weil die deutschen Tornados u.a. für die sogenannte “nukleare Teilhabe” vorgesehen sind. Während die US Kampfflugzeuge allesamt eine Freigabe zum Abwurf der entsprechenden B61 Atombomben besitzen (F-15, F-18) oder bald besitzen werden (F-35 vermutlich ab 2020), müsste der Eurofighter, abgesehen von den noch zu schaffenden technischen Voraussetzungen, eine entsprechende Freigabe von der US-Regierung überhaupt erst einmal bekommen. Dafür würden die USA Einblick in die technischen Spezifikationen und Unterlagen des Eurofighters verlangen, was den europäischen Partnern des Projektes allein schon aus Wettbewerbsgründen kaum recht sein dürfte.

Eurofighter Typhoon EF2000 (reg. 30+68) of the German Air Force (Deutsche Luftwaffe, Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 74) at ILA Berlin Air Show 2016 (photo: Julian Herzog [GFDL or CC BY 4.0].

Eurofighter Typhoon EF2000 (reg. 30+68) of the German Air Force (Deutsche Luftwaffe, Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 74) at ILA Berlin Air Show 2016 (photo: Julian Herzog [GFDL or CC BY 4.0].

Ist die F-35 das richtige Flugzeug für die deutsche Luftwaffe?
Aber wäre die F-35A, die von Fachleuten auch gern etwas spöttisch als “fliegender Computer” bezeichnet wird, wirklich ein geeigneter Nachfolger für die Tornado der Bundesluftwaffe? Sollte das Verteidigungsministerium nicht eher auf einen für die “nukleare Teilhabe” modifizierten Eurofighter setzen oder besser noch die erprobte F-18 Super Hornet anschaffen? Natürlich melden sich bei einem Rüstungsprojekt dieser Größenordnung sofort die Kritiker zu Wort. Bei der F-35 entzünden sich die Meinungen vor allem an dem Versuch des Herstellers Lockheed Martin, nicht nur ein Kampfflugzeug für drei unterschiedliche Teilstreitkräfte und deren spezifische Anforderungen zu entwickeln, sondern gleich noch eine Vielzahl älterer Flugzeugtypen für die Aufgaben Luftüberlegenheit (F-15), Mehrzweck (F-16), Luftnahunterstützung (A-10), als Senkrechtstarter (AV-8B) sowie Bomber und Elektronische Kampfführung (F/A-18) zu ersetzen. Ein Projekt, das wegen seiner Komplexität von Anfang an zum Scheitern verurteilt sein musste, nun aber zu groß und zu teuer geworden ist, um es wirklich noch scheitern zu lassen? Ungewöhnlich ist es, dass dem Hersteller Lockheed Martin bei der Auftragserteilung zugestanden wurde, schon in der Test- und Erprobungsphase eine Vielzahl von “Vorserienmodellen” zu produzieren (sog. “Concurrency“) und diese an die US Streitkräfte auszuliefern (Stand Juli 2018: 305+ Stück), anstatt die Produktion erst nach der Serienreife einer kleineren Anzahl von Prototypen aufzunehmen (“fly before you buy”).

Bericht der internen Revision des Pentagon zur F-35 ist ernüchternd
Der Director Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E – interne Revisionsbehörde) im US Verteidigungsministerium überwacht bei Beschaffungsmaßnahmen der US Army die Einhaltung der vertraglich festgelegten technischen und sicherheitsrelevanten Anforderungen für Waffensysteme aller Art. Dessen Berichte und Beurteilungen über den Fortgang und den aktuellen Status des F-35 Projektes durch die Entwicklungsabteilung Joint Program Office (JPO) für die Fiskaljahre 2016 und 2017 sind – zurückhaltend ausgedrückt – sehr ernüchternd: im aktuellen Prüfbericht 2017 stellt der DOT&E fest, dass die operative Eignung der F-35 hinter den Anforderungen zurückbleibe und die Erwartungen der Streitkräfte bisher nicht erfülle. Einsätze könnten teilweise nur durch technisch nicht vorgesehene Problemumgehungen geflogen werden. Das Beschaffungsprogramm liefere zur Zeit F-35 mit fehlenden Fähigkeiten aus, die im Kampf gegen aktuelle Bedrohungen eigentlich benötigt werden. Die landesweite Verfügbarkeitsrate der F-35 Flotte verharre seit Oktober 2014 bei inakzeptablen 50%, obwohl seitdem immer mehr Maschinen in Dienst gestellt wurden. Auch die technische Zuverlässigkeit der ausgelieferten Flugzeuge stagniere, so dass eine akzeptable Schwelle für die durchschnittliche Flugzeit bis zum Auftreten eines kritischen Fehlers eigentlich nur noch durch die gänzliche Neuentwicklung fehlerhafter Flugzeugkomponenten in der Zukunft erreichbar sei.

JSF maintainer (photo: Chrissy Cuttita / U.S. Air Force [Public domain])

JSF maintainer (photo: Chrissy Cuttita / U.S. Air Force [Public domain])

Der DOT&E hat in seinem Bericht insgesamt 301 schwerwiegende (Software-)Fehler u.a. in den Bereichen Zielbekämpfung, Waffenintegration, Überlebensfähigkeit, Missionsplanung, Cyber-Sicherheit, ALIS-Software und Wartungsfähigkeit festgestellt. Davon sind zumindestens 88 in der “Bearbeitung”, die restlichen 213 Fehler bleiben erst einmal ungelöst. Diese schwerwiegenden Mängel lassen die für den Beginn der Serienfertigung der F-35 notwendige Bestätigung der bedingten bzw. grundsätzlichen Einsatzbereitschaft durch den DOT&E nicht zu. Um dennoch den Bau weiterer, nicht vollständig einsatzreifer F-35 fortsetzen zu können, möchte die JPO nun dennoch die Entwicklungsphase offiziell abschließen und in eine “kontinuierliche Fähigkeitsfortentwicklungs- und Lieferphase” übergehen. An dieser Vorgehensweise meldet die interne Revision in ihrem 2017er Bericht aber ernsthafte Bedenken an. Wohl auch deswegen, weil durch gleichzeitige Entwicklung, Prototypentests und Vorserienproduktion eine beträchtliche Anzahl von F-35 mit unterschiedlichen Ausstattungen existieren. Die bereits erwähnte Einsatzprüfung zur Aufnahme der Serienproduktion wird wohl erst Ende 2019 möglich sein. Bis dahin sind dann aber bereits mehr als 600 Flugzeuge gebaut und ausgeliefert worden. Diese müssen später allesamt nachgerüstet werden, was wiederum erhebliche Kosten auslösen wird. Die USAF hatte deswegen bereits ernsthaft in Erwägung gezogen, 108 ausgelieferte, voll bezahlte F-35A Vorserienmodelle erst gar nicht mehr zu aktualisieren (sog. “Concurrency Orphans”), was nun jedoch wieder verworfen wurde.

Software ist die “Achillesferse” der F-35
Die Fähigkeiten der F-35 werden einerseits durch ihre technische Ausstattung und verbaute Elektronik bestimmt (u.a. 31 PowerPC Prozessoren von IBM mit 75.000 MIPS), andererseits ist die darunterliegende Software zur Steuerung und Bedienung ein wesentliches Fähigkeitsmerkmal. Einzelne Entwicklungsstufen werden in Blöcken zusammengefasst, die je nach Teilstreitkraft auch Unterteilungen aufweisen können. Block 1 beschreibt Flugzeuge “der ersten Stunde”, die zu Trainings- und Erprobungszwecken gebaut wurden, Block 2 gewährte darüber hinaus schon grundlegende Waffenfunktionen, während Block 3F den zur Zeit aktuellen Softwarestand darstellt. Die interne Programmierung der F-35 umfasst mehr als 8 Mio. Zeilen Softwarecode, mehr als vier Mal soviel wie bei der F-22. Berücksichtigt man die Faustregel, dass selbst bei sensiblen Rüstungsaufträgen pro 1.000 Zeilen Code ein Programmierfehler auftritt, dann ist es wenig überraschend, dass für die aktuelle, als bedingt einsatzfähig deklarierte Version der Block 3F R6 Software mittlerweile die 31. Aktualisierung vorliegt, der noch weitere folgen werden. Die Block 3F Software war anfangs selbst für erste Testflüge viel zu unzuverlässig. Auch bei der aktuellen Version 3F R6.32 werden zur Zeit immer noch Programmierfehler entdeckt und beseitigt.

The mission systems software blocks being developed for the program, the percentage of test points completed by block, and the build-up to full warfighting capability with Block 3F (Source: U.S. Government Accountability Office [Public domain]).

The mission systems software blocks being developed for the program, the percentage of test points completed by block, and the build-up to full warfighting capability with Block 3F (Source: U.S. Government Accountability Office [Public domain]).

Wesentlich schwerwiegender ist aber das Fehlen der einsatzrelevanten Missionsdateien (Mission Data Loads – MDL). Sie enthalten umfangreiche Informationen z.B. über potentielle Ziele, gegnerische Kampfflugzeuge und sonstige mögliche Bedrohungen, wie etwa Flugabwehrstellungen, jeweils mit ihren elektronischen und/oder infraroten Signaturen, die vor jedem Einsatz in den Bordcomputer der F-35 geladen und nach jedem Einsatz aktualisiert werden müssen. Ohne diese MDL kann die F-35 weder ihre Ziele finden noch möglichen Bedrohungen entgehen. Ihre Tarnkappenfähigkeit hängt maßgeblich von den MDL ab, um optimale Flugrouten abseits gegnerischer Flugabwehr und Abfangjäger zu berechnen. Für jedes Einsatzgebiet muss ein gesondertes MDL mit einsatzspezifischen Informationen erstellt werden. Insgesamt werden für den weltweiten Einsatz und für den Abschluss der Test- und Erprobungsphase mindestens sechs solcher MDL gebraucht. Zumindestens das erste MDL für die anstehenden Serienreifetests in den USA soll im Laufe dieses Jahres fertiggestellt sein. Nur ein Standort in den USA ist zur Zeit in der Lage, die MDL für alle F-35 zu programmieren: das US Reprogramming Laboratory (USRL) auf der Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Allerdings benötigt dieses “Labor” alleine für ein MDL 15 Monate, die Erstellung der erforderlichen sechs MDL würde somit theoretisch siebeneinhalb Jahre in Anspruch nehmen. Nicht einberechnet sind hierbei die erforderlichen Aktualisierungen bereits erstellter MDL durch die nach jedem Einsatz einer F-35 erlangten neuen Informationen über vorhandene bzw. zusätzliche Ziele und Bedrohungen, zu denen das USRL bislang gar nicht in der Lage ist, weil es mit unzureichender Software und veralteter bzw. unvollständiger Hardware arbeitet. Um die erstellten MDL auch eingehend testen zu können, benötigt das USRL zusätzlich spezielle Elektronik, sogenannte Bedrohungsemitter, die identische Signale erzeugen wie die zu erwartenen feindlichen Abfangjäger, Radarstellungen und Flugabwehrraketen in der potenziellen Kampfzone. Dem USRL fehlt aber laut Bericht des DOT&E bislang die erforderliche Anzahl an Emittern, um eine ausreichend bestückte elektronische Testumgebung zu schaffen, die den aktuell vorherrschenden globalen Bedrohungsszenarien auch nur annähernd entsprechen würde.

Ein weiterer wesentlicher Schwachpunkt des F-35 Projektes ist das ‘Autonomic Logistics Information System’ (ALIS), das im Eigentum der Herstellerfirma Lookheed Martin verbleibt und von dieser weltweit betrieben wird. Es handelt sich hierbei um ein komplexes Computersystem, bestehend aus 65 Einzelprogrammen mit 16 Mio. Zeilen Softwarecode, das fortlaufend Flugzeugdaten sammelt und analysiert. Es dient u.a. für die Einsatzplanung, Bedrohungsanalysen, Wartungsdiagnosen nebst -planung und für die Bestellung von Ersatzteilen. Alle F-35, auch die von Partnerländern bzw. Käufern außerhalb der USA, müssen ihre Missionsdateien nebst ALIS-Profilen vor und nach jedem Flug auf den neuesten Stand bringen. Hierfür werden die Daten aus jeder F-35 ausgelesen, danach über das Internet zunächst zum ALIS Mainframe nach Fort Worth in Texas geschickt, der diese dann u.a. an das USRL und Lockheed Martin weiterleitet. Von dort sollen dann zukünftig die aktualisierten Daten über den Mainframe zurück zu allen F-35, auch in Übersee, gelangen. Sollte die Internetverbindung aus den USA z.B. nach Europa durch Hackerangriffe auf Netzwerkknoten oder Sabotage der Unterseekabel unterbrochen werden, dann bleiben die vom ALIS ‘abgenabelten’ F-35 z.B. in Großbritannien, Italien und in der Türkei bis auf weiteres am Boden (Giovanni de Briganti, “US Software Stranglehold Threatens F-35 Foreign Operations“,, 04.11.2015). Denn eine Datenübertragung via Satellit ist schon wegen des hohen Datenvolumens nur einer einzigen F-35 Staffel kaum möglich, wie Tests an Bord des Flugzeugträgers USS George Washington im August 2016 zeigten. Es dauerte zwei ganze Tage, bedingt u.a. auch durch einsatztaktische “Funkstille”, eingeschränkte Bandbreiten und schlechte Satellitenverbindungen, um eine nur 200 MB große ALIS-Datei zu versenden. Wie diese Übertragungsprobleme zukünftig bei der Stationierung ganzer Staffeln von F-35 ‘B’/’C’ Modellen auf Flugzeug- und amphibischen Angriffsträgern gelöst werden sollen, bleibt abzuwarten. Der DOT&E forderte die USN insoweit zu weiteren Untersuchungen auf.

Portable maintenance device loaded with joint technical data and plugged into an F-35 (photo: Maj. Karen Roganov / U.S. Air Force [Public domain]).

Portable maintenance device loaded with joint technical data and plugged into an F-35 (photo: Maj. Karen Roganov / U.S. Air Force [Public domain]).

Der DOT&E weist in seinem Revisionsbericht aber noch auf weitere ALIS-Mängel hin. Nach dem letzten Update der Software musste die USMC Basis Yuma in Arizona im Juni 2017 den Flugbetrieb mit allen dort stationierten F-35 komplett einstellen, weil u.a. die Triebwerksdaten nicht ordnungsgemäß aufgezeichnet wurden. Darüber hinaus gibt ALIS fortlaufend falsche Werte über die Wartungs- bzw. Reparaturbedürftigkeit von Komponenten aus, die dann zu Flugzeugstilllegungen, Bestellungen nicht benötigter Ersatzteile und zeitaufwändigen aber sinnlosen Technikereinätzen führen. Manuelle Problemumgehungen und Eingriffe durch ALIS-Administratoren, die mittlerweile zum Wartungsalltag der Mechaniker gehören, sind für Vorgänge erforderlich, die eigentlich längst automatisiert ablaufen sollten. Schon in früheren Berichten bemängelte der DOT&E zudem die unzureichende Cybersicherheit der Soft- und Hardware gegenüber Hackerangriffen, sie sowohl das ALIS als auch die F-35 selbst betreffen. Diese längst bekannten Schwachstellen wurden auch im Berichtsjahr 2017 nicht beseitigt. Nunmehr empfiehlt der Revisor angesichts aktueller Cyberbedrohungen, ALIS z.B. bei Testflügen für den erlaubten Zeitraum von bis zu 30 Tagen besser ganz abzuschalten, was aber grundsätzlich nicht dem oben beschriebenen, notwendigen Zusammenwirken von ALIS und der F-35 entspricht, um effektive (Kampf-)Einsätze zu fliegen. Wohl auch aus diesen Gründen hat sich Israel vertraglich das Recht ausbedungen, wie bereits erwähnt, die Wartung ihrer F-35I Adir selbst zu übernehmen. Es herrscht dort die berechtigte Sorge, mitten in einem Konflikt keine F-35 mehr einsetzen zu können, weil ALIS durch Cyberangriffe kompromittiert wurde. Ob Israel deswegen mit ALIS außerhalb des globalen Netzwerkes bleibt oder gleich eine ganz eigene Wartungssoftware installiert hat, bleibt verständlicherweise geheim.

ALIS ist aber nicht nur Cyberbedrohungen im Internet ausgesetzt, es übermittelt auch selbst nach Auffassung einiger JSF-Partnerländer zu viele operative Daten nach jedem Flug einer F-35 an die U.S. Army sowie an die nichtstaatliche Herstellerfirma Lockheed-Martin und verletzt damit die Souveränität der am Projekt beteiligten Länder. Daher haben sich z.B. Italien, Norwegen und Australien entschieden, softwareseitig die Menge an sensiblen Daten, die zukünftig über ALIS in die USA übertragen werden sollen, zu beschränken. Darüber hinaus bauen Italien und Norwegen in den USA ein gemeinsames Software-Labor für die Programmierung von länderspezifischen Missionsdateien auf. Das ALIS-Netzwerk gewährt den USA bei Bedarf aber auch eine aktive Kontrolle über die bei den Partnerländern stationierten F-35 mit Hilfe der Verteilung von Updates und Patches der internen wie externen F-35 Software. ALIS könnte von den USA zukünftig zudem als “trojanisches Pferd” genutzt werden, um darüber Schadsoftware in die F-35 u.U. missliebig gewordener Partnerländer einzuspielen und diese softwareseitig lahmzulegen.

The F-35I Adir (accompanied by a F-16I Sufa) on its debut flight in Israel, December 2016 (photo: Major Ofer / Israeli Air Force [CC BY 4.0])

The F-35I Adir (accompanied by a F-16I Sufa) on its debut flight in Israel, December 2016 (photo: Major Ofer / Israeli Air Force [CC BY 4.0])

Die Zielerfassungs- und  Waffensysteme funktionieren nur eingeschränkt
Das “Electro-Optical Targeting System” (EOTS) ist ein Zielsystem auf Basis des bereits für die F-16 entwickelten Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod. Um die Tarnkappeneigenschaften zu bewahren, wurde auf einen externen Behälter verzichtet und das EOTS am Bug der F-35 in einer Kanzel aus Saphirglas in den unteren Flugzeugrumpf integriert. Es liefert über die Verbindung zum Zentralrechner mit Hilfe einer Videokamera, eines Infrarotsuch-/Verfolgungssystems (FLIR) und eines Entfernungs-/Zielbeleuchtungslasers die für die Bordwaffen erforderlichen Zielerfassungskoordinaten beim Luft- und Bodenkampf. Die so ermittelten Daten erhält der Pilot direkt auf das Visier seines Helmes übertragen. Ein Head-Up-Display (HUD – Frontscheibenprojektor) gibt es im Cockpit der F-35 nicht mehr. Laut Bericht des DOT&E aus dem Jahr 2016 erklärten die Testpiloten übereinstimmend, dass das integrierte EOTS leistungsschwächer sei, als das bei älteren Kampfjets der 4. Generation in einem externen Behälter mitgeführte. Gegner könnten in einer taktisch sinnvollen Entfernung nicht erkannt und identifiziert, Ziele während der Angriffsphase nicht dauerhaft mit dem Laser markiert werden. Umwelteinflüsse, wie z.B. hohe Luftfeuchtigkeit, würden die Piloten zwingen, dichter an potentielle Ziele heranzufliegen, als es eigentlich militärisch geboten wäre. Dies nehme der F-35 den Überraschungseffekt, warne mögliche Gegner unnötig vor, verlangsame den Feuerprozess und setze die F-35 zusätzlichen Bedrohungen im Zielgebiet aus. Im 2017er DOT&E Bericht wird weiter festgestellt, dass bewegliche Bodenziele mit dem EOTS nicht ausreichend zu erfassen sind. Die Piloten müssten beim Anvisieren mittels “Faustformeln” technische Defizite des EOTS ausgleichen, was unter realen Kampfbedingungen weder effektiv noch erlaubt sei. Aufgrund der bislang verbauten Elektronik werden sich diese Defizite des EOTS auch nicht mehr allein durch Software-Verbesserungen beheben lassen. Es überrascht daher nicht, dass Hersteller Lockheed Martin im September 2015 für die kommenden Block 4 Modelle der F-35 ein “Advanced EOTS” mit verbesserter Technik angekündigt hat, das jedoch erst ab 2020 verbaut werden kann.

Electro-optical target sensor (EOTS) on a mock-up of the F-35. Photo taken at RIAT 2007 (Source: Dammit, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Netherlands license)

Electro-optical target sensor (EOTS) on a mock-up of the F-35. Photo taken at RIAT 2007 (Source: Dammit, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Netherlands license)

Bei den Waffensystemen sieht es nicht unbedingt besser aus. Die F-35A ist für ihre vorgesehene Luftnahunterstützungsrolle u.a. mit einer internen, vierläufigen 25mm Gatlingkanone ausgerüstet. Bei den Waffentests im Jahr 2017 stellte sich heraus, dass diese zu weit und auch zu weit nach rechts feuert. Bei den in gesonderten Waffenbehältern der ‘B’ und ‘C’ Modelle mitgeführten Bordkanonen traten ebenfalls Trefferungenauigkeiten auf, wenn auch nicht so eklatant wie bei der ‘A’ Version. Die Fehler sind bislang bei keiner Version behoben.

Bei der AIM-120 Luft-/Luftrakete großer Reichweite (hinter dem Sichthorizont) ergaben die Waffentests Probleme mit der technischen Eingliederung und den Kontrollanzeigen in der F-35, die allesamt der Geheimhaltung unterliegen. Das veröffentliche Protokoll der Waffentests zeigt aber, dass Probeabschüsse der AIM-120 AMRAAM entweder ganz oder teilweise fehlschlugen bzw. die Bewertung der Ergebnisse noch andauert, was immer das heißen mag.

Weapons bay of a mock-up of the F-35. PPhoto taken at RIAT 2007 (Source: Dammit, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Netherlands license)

Weapons bay of a mock-up of the F-35. Photo taken at RIAT 2007 (Source: Dammit, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Netherlands license)

Bei den Tests der Luft-/Bodenwaffen wurden in Verbindung mit dem EOTS Defizite festgestellt, die den vollständigen und erfolgreichen Durchlauf der sogenannten “Bekämpfungsschleife”, bestehend aus Finden, Fixieren, Verfolgen, Zielen, Feuern und Bewerten verhindern und somit einen Waffeneinsatz erschweren, wenn nicht sogar unmöglich machen. So konnten die F-35 Piloten z.B. bei präzisionsgelenkten Bomben (JDAM) zwar die übermittelten, nicht aber die tatsächlich in der Bombe gespeicherten Zieldaten überprüfen. Die Einsatzregeln in Kampfzonen erfordern es in der Regel aber, dass der Pilot dem Fliegerleitoffizier (FAC) am Boden vor dem Waffeneinsatz die korrekten, in der Präzisionswaffe gespeicherten Zieldaten noch einmal ausdrücklich bestätigt.

Warnsystem “DAS” ist technisch veraltet und kämpft mit Produktionsfehlern
Für die Überwachung des Luftraumes um die F-35 herum wird ein aus sechs Infrarotkameras bestehendes, auf dem vorderen Flugzeugrumpf verteiltes “Distributed Aperture System” (DAS) eingesetzt (auf dem Bild unten ist eine DAS-Kamera direkt vor der Pilotenkanzel auf dem Bug zu erkennen). Es gewährt dem Piloten über ein auf das Helmvisier projiziertes Bild bei Tag und Nacht ein situatives Bewusstsein mittels eines sphärischen Rundumblicks, sogar bei einer Blickrichtung durch den Rumpf der F-35 hindurch nach unten, mit dem auch ein Navigieren bei völliger Dunkelheit mit Hilfe einer zusätzlich am Helm montierten Nachtsichtkamera möglich ist. Darüber hinaus erkennt/erfasst/bekämpft das DAS gegnerische Flugabwehr-/Radarstellungen, anfliegende Feindflugzeuge, gibt dem Piloten im Luftnahkampf eine permanente  Freund/Feind-Unterscheidung und leitet selbständig gegen erkannte Bedrohungen entsprechende Verteidigungsmaßnahmen ein (Infrarot-Täuschkörper, Düppel, elektronische Störung/Abwehr).

Beschädigte Glasabdeckungen bei den DAS-Kameras waren 2017 einer der Gründe, warum F-35 Kampfjets wiederholt von der USAF als nicht einsatzbereit eingestuft wurden, während sie bei der USN und dem USMC wenigstens noch als flugtauglich galten. Bei Nachtlandungen wurde dann aber zusätzlich festgestellt, dass in Verbindung mit der am Helm befindlichen Nachtsichtkamera bei völliger Dunkelheit (Neumond, kein Sternenlicht wegen starker Bewölkung, kein Zivilisationslicht) die Piloten das situative Bewusstsein aufgrund der schlechten Bild-/Auflösungsqualität der verbauten Infrarotkameras verloren, so dass ein sicheres Fliegen bzw. Landen für die Piloten mittels der von DAS/Helmkamera auf das Helmvisier übertragenen Außensicht nicht mehr möglich war.

F-35A front profile in flight. The doors are opened to expose the aerial refueling inlet valve (photo: MSgt John Nimmo Sr. [Public domain])

F-35A front profile in flight. The doors are opened to expose the aerial refueling inlet valve (photo: MSgt John Nimmo Sr. [Public domain])

Hier manifestieren sich gleich mehrere weitere Probleme bei der F-35: Neben immer wieder auch in anderen Bereichen auftretenden qualitativen Mängeln bei der Fertigung selbst (fehlerhafte DAS-Glasabdeckungen, technisch unzureichende Nachtsichtkamera, zu schnell verschleißende Reifen, mangelnder Korrosionsschutz, mechanisch labile Tanksonde), ist das aktuell verbaute DAS aufgrund der überlangen Erprobungsphase nebst Vorserienproduktion mehr als 10 Jahre im Einsatz und gilt nun als technisch veraltet, ähnlich wie bei dem oben bereits erwähnten EOTS. Hersteller Lockheed Martin kündigte im Juni 2018 an, ab 2023 für das Baulos 15 ein wesentlich verbessertes, leistungsstärkeres und billigeres DAS der Firma Raytheon zu verbauen. Da bis dahin aber die Serienproduktion bereits angelaufen sein dürfte, wird die F-35, u.a. durch den Einbau des verbesserten EOTS bzw. DAS, ab den 2020er Jahren in signifikant unterschiedlichen Hard- und Softwarekonfigurationen bei den fliegenden U.S. Teilstreitkräften im Einsatz sein. Ob auch die neuen elektronischen Bauteile ohne zusätzliche technische und softwarespezifische Probleme nahtlos in die F-35 integriert werden können, dürfte im Hinblick auf die bislang aufgetretenen Fehler zumindestens zweifelhaft sein. Auf jeden Fall aber wird ein Austausch von elektronischen Bauteilen alter und neuer Generation wegen der verschiedenen Softwareversionen innerhalb der F-35 Flotte nur sehr schwer, vermutlich aber gar nicht möglich sein.

VSI Helmet-mounted display system for the F-35 [Public domain]

VSI Helmet-mounted display system for the F-35 [Public domain]

Einsatzerfahrungen mit der F-35 zeichnen ein gänzlich anderes Bild
Aufsichts- und Kontrollbehörden im Allgemeinen, aber auch einige der schärfsten Kritiker im Besonderen, müssen sich entgegen halten lassen, “vom grünen Tisch” aus Urteile anhand umfangreicher Testprotokolle zu fällen, ohne selbst mit dem Gegenstand ihrer Prüfung bzw. Kritik eigene Erfahrungen gesammelt zu haben. Major Morten Hanche der Norwegische Luftstreitkräfte, Leiter der dortigen F-35 Test-/Evaluierungsabteilung, hat im Jahr 2016 mehrere interessante Blogbeiträge über seine Erfahrungen als ehemaliger F-16 und nunmehr aktueller F-35 Pilot veröffentlicht, denen die sonst übliche, entweder übertrieben positive oder negative Aufgeregtheit fehlen (siehe unter “Literaturverzeichnis”). Basierend auf seinen eigenen Erfahrungen mit der F-35A empfindet er die zumeist negativen Interpretationen der DOT&E Berichte durch die Medien als überzogen, weil sie gänzlich von unrealistischen Erwartungen ausgehen würden. Für ihn sei ein Mangel an Perfektion bei der F-35 kein Desaster. Er ist der Auffassung, dass gerade bei der Entwicklung und Erprobung eines so hochkomplexen Flugzeuges wie der F-35 immer Kompromisse eingegangen werden müssten. Für fast jeden auftretenden Fehler gebe es unter Einsatzbedingungen entweder eine Problemumgehung oder man lerne im Missionsalltag damit zu leben. Die F-35 funktioniere gut, selbst wenn sie (noch) nicht alle Spezifikationen erfülle. Er selbst sei beeindruckt von der F-35, vor allem in den Bereichen Geschwindigkeit, Dienstgipfelhöhe, Reichweite und Manövrierbarkeit, denn diese Eigenschaften könnten in Zukunft, im Gegensatz zu anderen Mängeln, nicht einfach durch Softwareupdates verbessert werden. Gegenüber der F/A-18 Hornet habe man das Gefühl “mit vier Triebwerken zu fliegen”. Auch könne er die Tarnkappenfähigkeiten der F-35 bestätigen, die im Gegensatz zur F-16 nicht schon aus größerer Entfernung zu orten sei. Ein Vergleich mit ausgereiften Kampfflugzeugen der 4. Generation sei nicht sachgerecht, weil diese bereits eine 40-jährige Fortentwicklungs- und Verbesserungsphase hinter sich hätten, um überhaupt auf den jetzigen Leistungsstand zu kommen, eine “Reifezeit”, die der F-35 bislang fehlen würde. Die F-16 sei bei ihrer Einführung in den 1970er Jahren fortdauernd von Fehlern und Defiziten geplagt gewesen, dennoch kann sie als eines der erfolgreichsten Kampfflugzeuge angesehen werden. Selbst heute noch würden die moderneren F-16 der Norwegische Luftstreitkräfte mit Mängeln bei der Avionik, Software und Logistik kämpfen, die nicht behoben werden, weil man deren Ursache bislang nicht ermitteln konnte oder bekannte Probleme aufgrund des fehlenden Kosten-/Nutzenverhältnisses gar ich nicht beseitigen will. Tatsächlich übererfülle die F-35 die an sie gestellten Erwartungen im Einsatz und besitze zudem eine hohe Wahrscheinlichkeit, im Ernstfall Kampfeinsätze auch zu “überleben”, ganz im Gegensatz zu Kampfjets der 4. Generation wie der F-16.

Lt. Col. Christine Mau, 33rd Operations Group deputy commander, puts on her helmet before taking her first flight in the F-35A on Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., May 5, 2015. Mau, who previously flew F-15E Strike Eagles, made history as the first female F-35 pilot in the program (photo: Staff Sgt. Marleah Robertson / U.S. Air Force)

Lt. Col. Christine Mau, 33rd Operations Group deputy commander, puts on her helmet before taking her first flight in the F-35A on Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., May 5, 2015. Mau, who previously flew F-15E Strike Eagles, made history as the first female F-35 pilot in the program (photo: Staff Sgt. Marleah Robertson / U.S. Air Force)

Ist die F-35 für die Luftwaffe das richtige Flugzeug?
Jedes größere Rüstungsprojekt im militärischen Flugzeugbau hatte bislang mit technischen Problemen, langen Verzögerungen, erheblichen Budgetüberschreitungen und harscher Kritik der Öffentlichkeit zu kämpfen, seien es nun F-15, F-16, F/A-18 auf amerikanischer oder Tornado, A-400 oder Eurofighter auf europäischer Seite. So darf es dann auch nicht überraschen, dass es bei einem so hochkomplexen Waffensystem wie der F-35 nicht anders kommen konnte. Als die F/A-18 bei der USN eingeführt wurde, fehlten ihr die Reichweite und Zuladung der A-7 Corsair sowie die Beschleunigung und Steigrate der F-4 Phantom. Heute ist die F/A-18 das Rückgrat der USN. Liest man beim letzten Bericht des DOT&E aus 2017 auch mal “zwischen den Zeilen”, ist selbst bei einer sehr pessimistischen Prognose davon auszugehen, dass spätestens ab 2025 die F-35 nicht nur die endgültige Serienreife längst erlangt hat, sondern – Dank des Austausches ganzer (elektronischer) Baugruppen und weiterer Software-Updates – auch einen Großteil ihrer technischen Probleme hinter sich gelassen haben dürfte. Dann besitzen die USA einen Kampfjet für das 21. Jahrhundert, mit dem die digitale und vernetzte Kriegsführung nicht nur ein Schlagwort, sondern Realität geworden ist. Auch im Hinblick auf den vermehrten Einsatz von (Letalen) Autonomen Waffensystemen (LAWS) im Verbund mit bemannten Kampfjets ist die F-35 die ideale Einsatzplattform zur Steuerung und Überwachung. Natürlich ist sie nicht unsichtbar (“stealth”), aber wahrscheinlich doch für die integrierte russische Flugabwehr schwerer zu orten (“stealthy”) als eine F/A-18 oder ein modernisierter Eurofighter. Und natürlich wird man mit der F-35 als Mehrzweckkampfflugzeug bei den Einzelaufgaben Luftnahunterstützung, -überlegenheit und -angriff Kompromisse eingehen müssen, aber das ist schon seit der Tornado eigentlich nichts wirklich Neues. Schließlich wird der Preis für die F-35 bis 2025 auf unter 80 Mio. US$ gefallen sein, was sicherlich kein “Schnäppchen” ist, aber doch deutlich günstiger als die aktuellen 95 Mio. US$. Da viele europäische NATO-Staaten ebenfalls die F-35 angeschafft haben oder anschaffen wollen, wäre erstmals seit langem wenigstens im Bereich der NATO Luftwaffen eine teilweise Harmonisierung beim verwendeten Militärgerät zu verzeichnen, wenn auch zu Lasten der angestrebten Unabhängigkeit Europas von den USA im Verteidigungsbereich.

Wie immer bei großen Rüstungsprojekten gibt es bei der Beschaffung eines solch teueren, technisch komplexen Waffensystems kein einfaches “ja” oder “nein”. Deutschland wird mit seiner Entscheidung in dieser Frage weder die USA noch Frankreich außen- wie militärpolitisch brüskieren wollen, sind sie doch beide wichtige Bündnispartner innerhalb der NATO und EU. Frankreich hatte bereits angekündigt, beim Kauf der F-35 durch Deutschland die Planung des zukünftigen gemeinsamen europäischen Jagdflugzeuges sofort zu beenden. Andererseits würde der geplante deutsch-französische Kampfjet der 5./6. Generation vermutlich viel zu spät seine Einsatzreife erlangen, um die Tornados der Luftwaffe bis 2025 rechtzeitig abzulösen. Die USA wiederum könnten eine Freigabe des Eurofighters für die nukleare Teilhabe auf 7-10 Jahre hinauszögern, um Deutschland zum Kauf der F-35A zu drängen, mit dem berechtigten Argument, selbst ein modifizierter Eurofighter wäre kein taugliches Trägersystem für amerikanische Atombomben, da er den modernen russischen Flugabwehrsystemen S-400/S-500 nicht gewachsen sei. Das gleiche Problem besteht beim Tornado aber mittlerweile wohl auch. Am besten also gleich ganz auf die nukleare Teilhabe mit den USA verzichten und mit Frankreich einen gemeinsamen Kampfjet bauen, der dann für Deutschland französische Atombomben ins Ziel tragen würde? Eine Variante, die im Hinblick auf die europäische bzw. deutsche Abhängigkeit vom US Atomschirm für eine glaubhafte nukleare Abschreckung in Europa eher unwahrscheinlich ist.

U.S. Government [Public domain]

U.S. Government [Public domain]

Dann besser doch dem Beispiel der Briten, Dänen, Norweger, Niederländer und Italiener in Europa folgen und eine technisch (bislang noch nicht) ausgereifte F-35 kaufen, die  zudem mit hohen Folgekosten für Wartung und Flugbetrieb daher kommt? Oder vielleicht eher eine “salomonische Lösung”, bei der Deutschland für eine geschätzte Übergangszeit von ca. 15 bis 20 Jahren bis zur Serien-/Einsatzreife des geplanten deutsch-französischen Kampfflugzeuges die amerikanische F/A-18 Super Hornet beschafft? Keine einfache politische Entscheidung, die das Verteidigungsministerium in naher Zukunft wird treffen müssen.

Die F-35 ist wohl kein rüstungspolitisches Desaster, auch wenn sie bislang noch nicht alle die in sie gestellten Erwartungen erfüllen kann. Sie ist teuer, dafür aber ein (fast) einsatzbereites Stealth-Mehrzweckkampfflugzeug der 5. Generation, das bis 2025 seine “Kinderkrankheiten” hinter sich gelassen haben dürfte und der Luftwaffe dann einen erheblichen militärischen Mehrwert liefern könnte. Ich für meinen Teil muss gestehen, dass mein Herz in dieser rüstungspolitischen Frage mehr transatlantisch für die F-35 schlägt als paneuropäisch für einen modifizierten Eurofighter bzw. das Future Combat Air System (FCAS).

Weitere Informationen
Lockheed Martin, “F-35 Lightning II program status and fast facts“, 11.09.2018


Posted in Armed Forces, International, Roger Näbig, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

In the 1970s the Shah sought to make Iran a military superpower

by Paul Iddon.

While it almost seems ironic in retrospect, Iran was by far the biggest recipient of American, and British weaponry in the 1970s and was rapidly becoming a major power. Awash with petrodollars as a result of the global increase in the price of oil in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and at the height of his power the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi bought some of the most advanced weapons in the world for the Iranian military. While he did succeed in making Iran one of the best equipped militaries in the region, in terms of both quality and quantity, projections from the 1970s made it clear that he had grander plans to make Iran into one of the most powerful conventional military forces in the world.

Son and Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi kisses his fater's (Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) hand after he flew past the royal stand in a Phantom jet in 1977. Queen Farah Pahlavi looks on.

Son and Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi kisses his father’s (Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) hand after he flew past the royal stand in a Phantom jet in 1977. Queen Farah Pahlavi looks on.


1 – Buildup

The Shah openly said at the time that he wanted to make the Iranian armed forces “probably the best non-atomic” military in the world (Maziar Bahari, “Fall of a Shah – part 1“, BBC World News, 2009). He essentially sought to make Iran the most powerful regional country as well as capable of projecting power far beyond the immediate Persian Gulf region.

Original projections from the time, widely reported in the Western press, showed just how insanely manic this buildup was in all sectors of the Iranian military. He sought to transform the Imperial Iranian Navy (IIN) into not only the predominate force in the Persian Gulf — following Britain’s departure from that strategic region in 1971 and the ensuing power vacuum — but a naval force capable of patrolling the Indian Ocean. He transformed the Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF) into the best equipped air force in the entire region, aside from Israel, and Iran was the only country in history the U.S. ever sold Grumman F-14 Tomcats air superiority fighter jets to. On the eve of the Iranian Revolution, the country’s army was described as the fifth largest in the world. Had the Shah’s ambitions been fulfilled, it would likely have been far larger with an enormous fleet of modern tanks and helicopters.

“By the early 80s, if Iran continues ordering at the pace of the past few years – and there is every reason to think it will – the total tank strength may well be more than 5,000. That is as many as are owned by Britain, France and Italy combined,” estimated one report from the time (Edward Cochrand, “Iran packs a new punch”, The Guardian, July 23, 1975). Britain sought to sell Iran as many as 1,200 Chieftain main battle tanks to augment an existing 1,360-strong armoured fleet, which would have given Iran’s ground forces approximately 3,000 tanks – primarily Chieftains and US-made M60 Pattons. “Only the U.S. and Russia, whose front-line tank strength usually is over the 15,000 mark, have larger tank forces,” noted another report at the time (Ernest Volkman, “Iran may buy 1,200 tanks”, Newsday, May 26, 1976). Ultimately it did not get that far: in the mid 1970s, Iran had 460 M60 Pattons’, supplemented by 400 older M47/48 Pattons’, and took delivery of almost 900 Chieftains before the revolution. Initially, Tehran wanted to buy more M60s but the Pentagon was busy replenishing its own stocks, having hastily shipped several of the tanks to Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

F-14 Tomcat of the Iranian Air Force at the 8th Tactical Air Base in Isfahan. According to Military Balance 2018, Iran is still using 43 F-14.

F-14 Tomcat of the Iranian Air Force at the 8th Tactical Air Base in Isfahan. According to Military Balance 2018, Iran is still using 43 F-14.

“The army’s fleet of more than 500 helicopters, soon to be 800, is said to be the largest anywhere outside the United States,” estimated another report from that period (Keyes Beech, “Shah of Iran Buys Way to Military Dominance”, Chicago Daily News, July 06, 1977). This helicopter fleet consisted of 205 AH-1J SuperCobra attack helicopters, a total of 90 CH-47C Chinooks built by Italy’s Elicotteri Meridionali, 20 of which were designated to serve in the air force, and an assortment of Bell helicopters (295 Bell 214 A, 50 AB-205A and 20 AB-206).

The Shah, himself a skilled pilot, also sought to make Iran’s air force one of the most powerful in the world in terms of both quality and quantity. His ambitions for this branch of the military were also enormous, as one estimate put it: “Iran plans, by 1980, to have more fighter-bombers than any member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization except the United States.” (Beech, 1977) The backbone of the IIAF consisted of 188 F-4D/E Phantom IIs and 166 F-5E/F Tiger II jets. Additionally, the Shah bought 80 F-14 Tomcats, taking delivery of 79 of them before his fall, along with hundreds of long-range AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missile to deter Soviet overflights of Iranian airspace, which they did using their then new MiG-25 Foxbats – until 1976, the fastest warplane in the world. This stupendously expensive Iranian order essentially saved the F-14 program since the Grumman Corporation hitherto hadn’t the capital to go ahead with the program. By late 1977 an average of six F-14s were produced each month, three of which went to the U.S. Navy and three to Iran, underscoring just how major an arms client Iran was at the time.

Artist impression of how the Iranian F-16s would have looked, if they would have been delivered. You can clearly see the shape of the early YF-16 design.

Artist impression of how the Iranian F-16s would have looked, if they would have been delivered. You can clearly see the shape of the early YF-16 design.

The Shah’s ambitions to make the IIAF a world-class air force did not stop there. He had grand plans to gradually phase out Iran’s F-4 and F-5s with F-16 Fighting Falcons and a proposed land-based variant of the F-18 Hornet (then under development) that ultimately never saw the light of day. Tehran sought 300 F-16s in two delivery batches. The first batch consisted of 160 of the jets which the Shah did successfully order. Then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sought to deflect concerns at the time that Iran simply did not have the technical know-how and skilled personnel to absorb large numbers of advanced equipment by stressing that only 10 of the jets, for use as trainers, would begin arriving in 1979 while the other 150 would be delivered by 1984 (Bernard Gwertzman, “U.S. to sell Iran 160 F16 fighters”, New York Times Service, August 28, 1976). Ultimately Iran never received a single unit of the iconic jet fighter due to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Even before that, however, there were doubts that the second batch of 140 F-16s would ever be delivered following the electoral victory of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who sought to curb foreign arm sales during his campaign — during which he severely criticized Iran’s vast arms purchasing (“Half of Iran’s F16 order may never arrive”, UPI, June 10, 1977).

Tehran also wanted a whopping 250 F-18s. The U.S. Navy at the time wanted 800 F-18s for its aircraft carriers. Iran proposed providing the Northrop Corporation $8 million to develop the land-based variant, referred to in the press at the time as the F-18L, which would have been lighter than the naval version (“Iran Offers F18 Aid”, UPI, October 28, 1976). This was quite unusual, since the Pentagon never permitted a foreign government to finance the creation of a warplane. The Shah ultimately proved no exception to this rule. While the U.S. Navy supported the development of the F-18L for Iran, believing that it would reduce the cost of production for its own F-18As, the Carter administration ruled out the sale. Carter did not want to promote foreign sales to lower the cost of equipment for the U.S. military, sought to prevent arms sales that did not contribute to U.S. security and outright forbid the “development or significant modification of advanced weapon systems solely for export.” (Charles W. Corddry, “US denies Iran’s bid for 250 jets”, Washington Bureau of The Sun, June 18, 1977). Furthermore, the Pentagon clearly never took the idea very seriously. “The Pentagon’s relaxed treatment of the matter is evident in its failure even to estimate the total price of 250 Northrop F-18Ls, including spare parts, ground-support equipment and crew training,” noted one news report. “Mr. Carter nevertheless stands to gain from this seeming early test of his new policy on foreign arms sales. And by informed accounts, the Shah of Iran probably is not miffed.” (Corddry, 1977).

USAF E3 Sentry AWACS plane similar to the kind the Shah sought to buy.

USAF E3 Sentry AWACS plane similar to the kind the Shah sought to buy.

Tehran also tried to buy seven Boeing 707 AWACS for $1.2 billion, which would have enabled it to coordinate its enormous air force more effectively to intercept any airbourne intruders, or potentially plan a major offensive action against its neighbours (“AWACS for Iran”, The New York Times, September 9, 1977).

The Shah’s naval ambitions were not just limited to Iran’s Persian Gulf shores. The Iranian ruler was also “formulating plans to make his nation a permanent maritime presence in the Indian Ocean by 1980.” In the mid-1970s he “talked of the possibility of a trilateral security force composed of Australian, South African and Iranian warships to protect the sea lanes.” (“Iran’s Navy Becoming Formidable Force”, The Associated Press, October 6, 1975). In the Gulf, Iran had 14 British-built hovercrafts along with four Saam-class frigates, which it planned to augment with at least four Spruance-class destroyers from the U.S. and three Tang-class vintage diesel submarines. While Iran never received those last two orders it did later, under the current regime, purchase 3 Russian-made Kilo-class submarines in the 1990s. A naval exercise in the Gulf in November 1972 saw no fewer than 40 ships participate, including “two new British-built destroyers”. (“Iran shows navy’s strength”, The Associated Press, November 9, 1972).

Iran’s hovercraft fleet consisted of British-built 8 SR.N6s and 6 BH.7 Wellingtons. The BH.7s could carry over 50 tons while the SR.N6s could carry a much more modest 10 tons. While lightly armoured they were speedy and could drop troops at the other side of the Persian Gulf in about a half an hour. They were based on Iran’s Kharg island in the northern part of the Gulf. (Anthony H Cordesman, “Iran’s Military Forces in Transition: Conventional Threats and Weapons of Mass Destruction“, March 30, 1999, p. 195).

BH.7 Wellington hovercraft of the IIN, Kharg Island Oct 1971.

BH.7 Wellington hovercraft of the IIN, Kharg Island Oct 1971.


2 – Support

Such an enormous build-up of large quantities of sophisticated hardware in such a short space of time obviously needed skilled personnel to help train the Iranians on how to operate and maintain their new weapon systems. Indeed, one recurring theme in press reports from the 1970s concerned Iran’s reported inability to absorb such advanced hardware in such short notice. “Some estimates are that 150,000 Americans will be in Iran by 1980 performing defence-related roles,” complained U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers. “Are we sacrificing our training needs and consequently our preparedness by making these sales?” (Peter J. Ognibene, “Should We Be No. 1 in Arms Sales?”, Syndicated column, July 10, 1977). The U.S. General Accounting Office also concluded that Washington “extensive sale” of military equipment and know-how “could adversely affect the readiness status of United States forces.” (Jack Anderson and Les Whitten, “U.S. Fears Shah Plans Oil Takeover”, Syndicated column, July 31, 1975).

Bumpers’ prediction, made in 1977, demonstrably shows how the Shah’s manic military build-up required tens-of-thousands of U.S.-american contractors and military advisors to sustain. The estimates for the total number of U.S. military personal “including advisors, mechanics and maintenance personnel” at the end of 1973 was a mere 1,200 (“U.S. Helping Iran Military Program”, UPI, July 4, 1973). At 52,000 U.S.-Americans in the country circa 1977, Iran was home to the largest expatriate community in the world. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee estimated that “it is unlikely that Iran could go to war in the next five to 10 years […] without U.S. support on a day-to-day basis.” (Ognibene, 1977).

It was not uncommon in the mid to late 1970s to have large amounts of hardware and munition simply “piling up on Iranian docks and fields”. As a result of this “Iranian air crews simply can’t be trained fast enough to operate all the aircraft that the eager Shah has thrust upon them,” wrote journalist Jack Anderson at the time. “They were just learning to fly the F-4s when the Shah began buying F-5Es. Before the F-5E crews are broken in; the still more advanced F-14s will begin arriving. […] The Shah has bitten off more than he can digest,” a source told Anderson while another admitted that, “[w]e are projecting a massive snafu.” (Jack Anderson, “U.S. Will Cure Iran’s Military Headache”, Syndicated column, September 25, 1975).

It was also estimated in 1976 that if the U.S. immediately stopped selling arms to Iran “although the Shah is considering buying 250 to 300 more U.S.-fighter planes, plus much other equipment — it would be five years or more before Iran could have the necessary expertise to operate the weapons systems she already has.” (Tom Wicker, “President and Shah”, The New York Times, August 9, 1976).

The Grumman Corporation released a promotional video in 1977 showcasing its projects in Iran, including the modern 1970s suburban homes built for its contractors in Iran and the durable F-14s Iran was beginning to operate. It points out that most of the students in the program had little more than a “high school education” (see after 10′ in the video above). One instructor shown in the video points out that they were there to ultimately “work ourselves out of a job” (see after 12’29” in the video above).

Around the same time reporter James Yuenger visited Iran, including the massive Khatami Air Base outside of Isfahan, and made similar observations to those by Anderson. “Without another decade of extensive on-the-spot training by thousands of American personnel ranging from computer analysts to grease monkeys, the shah of Iran cannot hope to make use of all the billions of dollars worth of sophisticated U.S. weapons he has purchased and is hoping to purchase,” Yuenger wrote. He also cited a systems programmer who went so far as to say that the U.S. “was trying to run space-age programs in a medieval society.” (James Yeunger, “Costly war machine needs Yanks to crank it”, Chicago Tribune, January 9, 1978).

In late 1977 one of Iran’s F-14s stalled and went into a flat-spin. Fearing that they could not pull out of it on time the pilot and his backseat radar intercept officer ejected leaving the plane to crash. One anonymous observer confided to Yuenger that “[a]fter they bailed out the goddamnest thing happened: That aircraft pulled out of the stall and levelled out by itself. The avionics in there are so good that there’s no way they should have ejected.” [Emphasis in original]. “So the plane flew along for a while,” he continued. “And then, of course, because the pilot had bailed out, it crashed. And there went 25 million bucks down the tube. Stupid!” (Yeunger, 1978).

The year beforehand the Shah himself went to see a test firing of an AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missile fired from six miles away. Instead of hitting its designated target, it made a “ninety degree” turn and headed toward the pavilion where the Shah and his accompanying generals were surveying the test hitting the ground and exploding nearby, the shock-waves almost collapsing the pavilion structure. Unfazed the Shah ordered an immediate resumption of tests, which were all a success (Andrew Scott Cooper, “The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran“, August 2, 2016, p.30).

Tehran also employed U.S.-civilians to teach its military helicopter tactics. Delk M. Oden, a retired U.S. Army Major General, the then president of Bell Helicopter International put together a 1,500-man civilian task force “to help create the Iran Sky Cavalry brigade, a strike force using helicopter gunships and assault helicopters modeled after the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division that fought in Vietnam’s highlands.” The contract to provide those helicopters, however, was made directly between Bell Helicopter and Tehran. Iran bought 489 Bell helicopters in 1973 “but the aviator task force did not come under U.S. government control because no weapons were involved.” (“Iran’s Army Trained by Ex-Army Aviators”, The Associated Press, February 11, 1975).

Aside from U.S. helicopter pilots one industrial recruiting firm put an ad in “The Washington Post” in 1977 seeking to recruit 20 former U.S. Navy F-14 pilots to train Iranian pilots. Ted Raymoud, the president of the recruiting firm, General Devices Inc., received several phone calls from reporters inquiring about what it was about. “They probably thought we were trying to start a war,” he said, going on to stress that, “[t]hese are no mercenaries. They’re strictly to teach, to instruct.” (“Wanted: Some pilots for Iran”, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 11, 1977). Any qualified American F-14 pilot who signed up, would have received a $50,000 salary (worth over $200,000 today) plus free accommodation and other benefits. Raymond explained how difficult it was to find qualified personnel as well as convince them to move to Iran for the duration of the program. Living in Iran “is okay as long as you can acquire a taste for the local food – rice, lamb, yogurt. But if you want to buy a jar of peanut butter, it’ll cost you $5,” he noted.


3 – Reactions

Such a huge program, unsurprisingly, drew mixed responses and a fair amount of skepticism and criticism in the U.S. Government and the U.S. press. An editorial written by a senior staff member of the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University in late 1974 cited several “double standards” in press coverage. The analyst argues that, “even though India’s economy is in shambles and starvation is blighting its population centers, Prime Minister [Indira] Ghandi’s decision to invest scarce resources in a nuclear option generally seems to have been taken in stride by American observers. By contrast, the Shah’s purchases of conventional weapons – purchases that, incidentally, he can afford – evoke charges of ‘irrationality’.” [Emphasis in original] (Alvin J. Cottrell, “Explaining Iran”, Washington Post Service, December 23, 1974).

A 1976 editorial in the “Christian Science Monitor” also questioned if the U.S. was getting the best deal possible for selling billions worth of weapons to Iran while the Shah sought to keep the price of oil high. The article noted that “[i]f Saudi Arabia needs to buy some $2 billion worth of American weapons a year, a case can certainly be made for Iran needing even more”, pointing out that Iran had a far larger population and sat on strategic territory long coveted by the Soviet Union. However, it pointed to the fact that Riyadh at that time had “consistently restrained those OPEC countries who have been loudest for higher prices” while “Iran has usually been loud in its demands for the higher prices.” (Joseph C. Harsh, “U.S.-Iran arms-oil swap: Are we getting the best deal possible?”, Christian Science Monitor News Service, August 20, 1976).

Cartoon criticizing U.S. policy towards Iran in 1976.

Cartoon criticizing U.S. policy towards Iran in 1976.

The author went on to argue that it is within the U.S. interest to keep supplying Iran to make it a strong enough power “to defend itself and to contribute to stability in the Persian Gulf”, citing the common argument at the time that if Iran did not get its weapons from the U.S. it would get them from elsewhere, possibly even Moscow “as a last resort”. The articles concludes by arguing that “it is reasonable to hope that if they are to get all the super weapons they have on order, they will from now on be a force working toward oil-price restraint.” (Harsh, 1976).

A Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee panel also investigated, in the summer of 1976, the beginning of the Shah’s vast arms build-up during the Nixon administration and argued that there is little evidence to suggest that neither U.S. President Richard Nixon nor U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger “recognized the far-reaching policy implications of the U.S.-Iranian military relationship.” A staff report of the subcommittee, headed by U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey, also pointed to the lack of trained personnel Iran had to operate its hi-tech F-14s and even warned of the potential of U.S. advisors becoming “hostages” in Iran were a military crisis to develop (“Panel is looking into fighter-jet sale to Iran”, The Associated Press, August 8, 1976). An editorial shortly thereafter evaluated U.S. military sales to Iran and concluded by suggesting that “Congress would do well to monitor and question the arms sales to Iran, but not summarily cut them off. Available evidence indicates the United States will continue to need Iran as a defense buffer, and as a friend, in a troubled region where we otherwise are toothless.” (“Iran’s arms buildup”, Arizona Republic, September 2, 1976).

By the following summer Carter was president and the potential sale of AWACS planes to Iran invoked substantial debate in the U.S. Congress. One editorial pointed out that the AWACS planes were at that time “the exclusive property of the U.S. intelligence services” and can “keep track of air warfare and in some ways control it.” The editorial also noted that U.S. “introduction of the new weapon to the Persian Gulf area would cause greater destruction should a war break out there”, warning that “Iran could use the AWACS offensively; the weapon could convince the Shah he is able to start a war.” It addressed another point raised by critics and skeptics of the sale at the time, the prospect that the Soviets could somehow procure the technology. “Mismanagement, crashes or Soviet spying could result in a breach of national security,” it warned, before going on to lambast the Shah as a tyrant “who probably does not deserve the kind of American help he has been getting.” (“Case Strong Against AWACS for Iran”, The Decatur Daily Review, August 9, 1977)

IIAF F-14 Tomcats in the 1970s.

IIAF F-14 Tomcats in the 1970s.

U.S. Senator John Culver, went so far as to call Carter’s proposed sale “insane”. While testifying this during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the subject the senator “dropped a freshly lighted cigar to repeatedly attack the plan to sell the AWACS to Iran as ‘insane’ and ‘ridiculous’.” Culver’s main concern was the aforementioned potential of the Soviets acquiring the technology, arguing it would enable them to “punch the eyes out” of the U.S. military, adding that he didn’t “want to go to those funerals”. He also presciently went on to question what he called the “superficial stability” of the Shah’s regime. “We don’t know which way the guns will point if the regime changes hands over night.” (“Culver calls plan to sell AWACS to Iran ‘insane'”, The Register’s Washington Bureau, July 19, 1977).

U.S. Senator Henry M. Jackson, on the other hand, argued in a report prepared by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, that the U.S. has “a direct interest” in seeing to it that Iran has sufficient military forces to prevent the Soviets “or radical forces from taking power in any of the oil-rich Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia.” The report went on to suggest “that the United States should condone an Iranian invasion of Saudi Arabia in certain circumstances”, in particular “[i]f Iran is called upon to intervene in the internal affairs of any (Persian) Gulf state, it must be recognized in advance by the United States that this is the role for which Iran is being primed.” (“Senate Report Backs Iranians Against Saudis”, The Washington Post, December 25, 1977).

Little more than a year later U.S. Senator William Proxmire, a member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense who was famous for his critiques of government overspending, said that the U.S. should deny an Iranian request for more F-14s and for over one hundred F-16s, arguing, in a statement released from his office, that “Iran has no further need for sophisticated aircraft unless it is for aggressive purposes. […] Iran is loaded with American military equipment – far beyond its own defensive needs.” He added that none of its regional neighbours posed a “direct threat. Only the Soviet Union could challenge and overwhelm Iran militarily. And no amount of U.S. aid or sales could redress that fact of life.” (“Proxmire asks Iran F-14 request denied”, UPI, May 28, 1978).


4 – Arms races

The Shah of Iran oversees his navy when Tehran was America's gendarme in the Persian Gulf in the 1970s (Screenshot from BBC documentary "The Last Shah").

The Shah of Iran oversees his navy when Tehran was America’s gendarme in the Persian Gulf in the 1970s (Screenshot from BBC documentary “The Last Shah“).

The Shah’s enormous arms build-up was motivated by a variety of factors. For one Iran was engaged in a tense border dispute with Iraq in the 1970s over the Shatt al-Arab waterway. The Shah consequently oversaw a covert supply program to the Iraqi Kurds to keep Baghdad bogged down within its own frontiers and then cynically dumped them to make a deal, the Algiers Agreement of 1975, over the status of the strategic waterway with then Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein to buy time and make the Iranian military even stronger.

Aside from tensions with Iraq, which ultimately sparked the vicious Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s shortly after the Iranian Revolution, the Shah also saw India as a potential threat and feared the Pakistani state fragmenting and openly said he would contemplate intervening forcefully if that happened. The Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, which saw Pakistan’s exclave “East Pakistan” secede from Islamabad and become Bangladesh, clearly worried the Iranian monarch. “We saw organized armies crossing international boundaries and nobody did anything about it, not even the United States, while the mass media for the most part applauded this illegality, I opposed Pakistan’s military intervention in Bangladesh,” the Shah said in retrospect. “But the India-Pakistan war more than ever reinforced our resolve to strengthen Iran’s defenses.” [Emphasis by the author] The Shah’s stated goal throughout the 1970s was to make Iran strong enough to defend against any adversary in a non-nuclear war. “That’s my ultimate aim,” he said. “Some people laughed when I started off this program. But now I estimate we are only five years away from our goal.” Pahlavi even reserved the right to seize Pakistan’s Baluchistan territories if the country were to fragment. “We must see to it that Pakistan doesn’t fall to pieces,” he insisted, before adding that, “[t]he least we could do [in such a situation] in our own interest would be some kind of protective reaction in Baluchistan.” (“Iran keeps its powder dry”, The New York Times, April 26, 1973).

At the same time Baghdad Radio was attempting to stir-up separatist sentiments among Iran’s own Baluch population in the southeast. The Shah himself feared his covert war with Iraq could quickly escalate into an actual war. A U.S. intelligence assessment noted that Tehran’s support to those Kurds “reached a level comparable to that of Indian involvement with the Bengalee [sic] rebels in East Pakistan just prior to the 1971 war.” (Roham Alvandi, “Nixon, Kissinger and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the the Cold War“, Oxford University Press, November 2016, p. 110).

Tehran’s military buildup, even before it was accelerated in the aftermath of the oil crisis, “frightened India into revising its calculations of its own defence needs.” (“Pakistan’s protective ally, Iran”, The Economist, July 19, 1973). By 1974 India had demonstrated to the world that it possessed a nuclear capability through its “Smiling Buddha” bomb test on May 18, 1974. Earlier U.S. and European officials feared that Tehran’s conventional build-up, which in the early 1970s was turning it into “the primary military power between Israel and India”, coupled with the Shah’s “protective attitude” to Pakistan “could promote an arms race between Iran and India.” It was noted in 1973 that while the Indian military was larger it was nevertheless “in some vital areas, less sophisticated.” The Indian Army had 826,000 troops at the time while Iran had a far smaller 160,000. New Delhi possessed “1,700 tanks and 842 combat aircraft, compared with Iran’s 920 and 145.” Nevertheless, were Tehran to have deployed its modern air force along with its fleet of Chieftains, it would have had “a qualitative edge in both weapons systems.” (“Iran arms race with India is feared”, New York Times News Service, July 22, 1973). However, India’s possession of an actual arms industry, which enabled it to domestically build MiG-21 fighter-bombers among other things, and shortly thereafter the nuclear bomb, arguably would have compensated for Iran’s technological edge were a major war between them to actually break out.

While in the 1970s the Shah’s primary aim was no longer to combat a direct Soviet threat to Iran, relations were quite cordial by that time, he still worried that his country “might be outflanked – by Soviet support of Gulf Arab ‘liberation’ movements or conversely, by a Soviet ideological drive to the east through Afghanistan to aid separatist movements in Pakistan’s Baluchistan.” (“Iran Seeks to Extend Power Sphere”, Los Angeles Times, July 30, 1975). The Shah intervened in Oman to help Muscat crush a Communist insurgency. He was also later revealed to have offered to return the exiled Afghan monarch Zahir Shah to Afghanistan, have him request Iranian support to reinstall him, and then militarily intervene in the country – where he sought to preempt any potential Soviet incursion. That never materialized. (Mentioned in Professor Abbas Milani’s 2011 lecture: “The Shah and Ayatollahs: Ruptures and Continuities in Iranian Politics“, Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, University of Michigan, 17.03.2011, 42’57”.)

In 1973 the Shah also sought to exert his control over the Persian Gulf by controlling shipping through the strategic Strait of Hormuz entrance along with Oman. The proposal came a week after the Shah expressed his displeasure to Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin “over the presence of Soviet military ships in the Gulf” and also “about Soviet involvement in the building of a new Iraqi port at Um Qasr.” (“Iran trying to control Persian Gulf shipping”, Washington Post News Service, March 23, 1973).

In the mid-1970s the Shah’s bid to buy nuclear reactors to further modernize his country led to some projections that he would soon have the potential to make Iran a nuclear power. Journalist Frances Fitzgerald even predicted, in December 1974, that “[i]n a few years Iran will have the capacity to manufacture the atom bomb, and by then it will have the delivery system that can reach all the way to Moscow. It will also have the depth of military equipment to fight a protracted conventional war against one or more of its neighbours.” (Frances Fitzgerald, “Giving the Shah Everything He Wants”, Harper’s Magazine, December 1974).

When the Carter administration refused to sell the Shah Pershing missiles, Iran engaged in a secret program with Israel, known as Project Flower, to build their own missiles. At that time Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman advised Iranian General Hassan Toufanian that “[a] country like yours, with F-14s, with so many F-4s, with problems surrounding you, [must have] a good missile force.” (Trita Parsi, “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States“, Yale University Press, December 3, 2007, p.75). Ultimately Project Flower, which was to see Israel provide the technology in return for oil, never saw the light of day as a result of the Iranian Revolution.

Illustration with Erdman's fictional story in New York Magazine showing depicting a unilateral Iranian invasion of Iraq in 1976.

Illustration with Erdman’s fictional story in New York Magazine depicting a unilateral Iranian invasion of Iraq in 1976.

Iran’s military build-up even inspired a fictional scenario whereby the Shah would use his newfound wealth to make Iran a world power of the kind it was in the times of Ancient Persia and destroy the Western world’s industrialized economies in the process. Writer Paul Erdman’s 1974 story was called “The Oil War of 1976: How the Shah Won the World“. In it he used publicly available information about Iran’s military arsenal to write what he deemed a realistic war scenario. Erdman’s story is a retrospective of the 1976 war from the then future modern day of 1984. The Shah’s build-up of the day is even compared with Hitler’s military buildup before invading Europe. Erdman quoted real-life statements made by the Shah at the time and accurately described the weapon systems he was buying – the story adds one major fictional element, the Shah’s leasing of the aircraft carriers USS Kitty Hawk and USS Constellation. The Iranian leader begins his war by making a deal with the Soviet Union to stand aside while he uses his massive arsenal of U.S.-American weapons to preemptively attack Iraq and then seize the entire Persian Gulf region. “Iran would make a preemptive strike,” he tells Soviet representatives in the lead up the story’s war, at secret meeting in Switzerland. “Not just against Iraq. We would simultaneously neutralize Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, as well as the northern tip of Oman. We will have the entire Persian Gulf – both sides – in our hands before the Americans even find out. After that they, and their friends the Saudis, will be finished in the Middle East […] provided your country does not intervene.” (Paul Erdman, “The Oil War of 1976: How the Shah Won the World“, New York Magazine, December 2, 1974. p. 43). In the story, the Shah sought to placate Soviet objections over invading Iraq by arguing that Tehran is a better ally to Moscow than Baghdad since it gets large amounts of natural gas from the regional power. He even offers Moscow one or two of his F-14s to examine.

Erdman’s war scenario ultimately lasts two days, he calls it the “Two Day War”, and results in a rapid defeat of the Iraqi military, prompting Baghdad to surrender. Iran uses its air power to devastating affect like Israel in the Six-Day War. Erdman goes so far as to write that it exceeded “even Israeli performance a few years back in terms of turnaround time and operational techniques.” Ironically, Saddam opened his real life preemptive attack invasion of Iran on September 22, 1980 by trying to replicate Israel’s tactics but failed to afflict any serious damage to the Iranian air force thanks to Tehran’s construction of hardened aircraft shelters to prevent its air force suffering the same fate as Egypt’s on June 5, 1967. The Shah’s takeover of the entire region concludes with the Americans second-guessing if he has nuclear weapons or not and realizing it was too costly to push him back. The Shah insists he remains a friend of the United States. Another oil price ensues as a result of the Iran’s aggression resulting in a 1929-esque financial crash, that bankrupts Britain and Italy, causes a famine and the collapse of Western economies in, ironically, 1979 “and ultimately, the end of the Industrial Era”.

In the real world 1976 intelligence reports suggested the Shah could seize Saudi Arabia if he wanted to, something they feared he might try and do were his oil reserves, then estimated to only last only another two decades, become depleted. While the Shah at that time, thanks to the Nixon Doctrine, was the predominate military force in, and “protector” of, the Persian Gulf – especially since the British withdrawal in 1971 – the Gulf monarchies were “beginning to wonder who will protect them from their protector” (Jack Anderson, “Shah could take the Saudi fields”, Syndicated column, March 26, 1976).

As a result of the Algiers Accords of the previous year, Iran and Iraq were technically at peace at that time. Analysts believed this peace would be shattered were the Shah to invade Saudi Arabia, predicting that Iraq would then have broken its agreement with Tehran to side with the Saudis, potentially sparking a major regional war in which “from a great distance, Egypt and Jordan would also be expected to back Saudi Arabia.” (Anderson, 1976)

CBS host Mike Wallace quoted to the Shah from a CIA psychological profile which mentioned the prediction that he might invade regional oilfields. The Shah initially denied knowledge of the report before outright dismissing it. “I think there is lots of imagination in that,” he casually remarked (see video below).

Ultimately, noted author Thomas A. Petrie in retrospect, what Erdman “and much of the rest of the world did not know was that by 1978, the Shah would become terminally ill, and thus, he would be the initiator of the next disruption by virtue of his absence (or more correctly, his abdication) rather than by his overwhelming military presence.” (Thomas A. Petrie, “Following Oil: Four Decades of Cycle-Testing Experiences and What They Foretell about U.S. Energy Independence”, University of Oklahoma Press, July 2015, p. 40).

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A Gate Unguarded: The ISIS Threat in Tajikistan

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

An image taken from a video distributed by ISIS on July 31, 2018 purportedly shows the militants who the terror group claims attacked a group of international cyclists in Tajikistan on July 29.

An image taken from a video distributed by ISIS on July 31, 2018 purportedly shows the militants who the terror group claims attacked a group of international cyclists in Tajikistan on July 29.

On 29 July 2018, Tajikistan experienced its worst terrorist attack in the 17 years since it gained independence from the Soviet Union. In that attack, five militants, who had sworn allegiance in a video to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), struck a group of international cyclists with a car and then proceeded to stab the survivors with knives, before local police arrived on the scene, killing four of the militants and arresting one. As a result of the attack, two Americans, one Swiss citizen, and one Dutch citizen were killed, while three others – one Swiss, one Dutch, and one French – were injured. The attack was carried out in Danghara District, near the hometown of Emomali Rahmon, who has been President of Tajikistan since 1992.

Whether the location was important to the planners of the attack is not known, though the authorities have been quick to blame the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) for this targeting of tourists, portraying it as an effort to undermine President Rahmon’s international credibility. The IRPT was one of the parties which formed the United Tajik Opposition during the Tajik Civil War, a conflict waged between 1992 and 1997 amid regional and ethnic rivalries and in protest against the perceived authoritarianism of President Rahmon. The conflict resulted in the deaths of 25,000 to 100,000 people, mainly from Tajikistan but also Taliban fighters from neighbouring Afghanistan, before peace talks in Moscow led to the cessation of hostilities and the legalization of the IRPT, which soon came to be the second largest political party in the country. The IRPT continued to participate in Tajikistan’s democratic process until, amid a campaign of harassment from the authorities, the party was abruptly banned in 2015 from all future elections and was designated as a terrorist organization.

In this context, it is doubtful that the IRPT was somehow involved in the attack and so the claim of responsibility by ISIS should be accepted as the most plausible explanation for the targeting of these cyclists. This presents some concerns for the integrity of the Tajik state, as the Afghan affiliate of ISIS, which refers to itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province (ISIS-KP), has come under increased pressure from both the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the Taliban. A rash of bombings and other attacks across northern Afghanistan indicate that ISIS-KP is worried about potential peace talks amid the other Afghan factions and the resulting isolation this would create for the terrorist organization. Were ISIS to find itself locked out of a political solution to the more than 17-year conflict in Afghanistan, its few thousand fighters could be displaced to Tajikistan, from where it could launch further attacks or attempt to seize power in that country.

The attack on July 30th demonstrates how ill-prepared Tajikistan is to combat ISIS. The Tajik National Army is poorly trained and equipped, comprised largely of former militias that fought on both sides of the 1992-1997 Civil War. United States National Guard units, particularly from Virginia, have conducted joint training exercises with the Tajik National Army for several years in an effort to develop a competent roster of non-commissioned officers in Tajikistan, but this is an endeavour which will take many more years to reach fruition, as command structures in the Tajik military remain highly centralized. Furthermore, Tajikistan’s Border Service is poorly equipped and rife with corruption, as documented by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), allowing for the trafficking of substantial quantities of narcotics and firearms across the border with Afghanistan. A concerted effort by ISIS fighters to infiltrate Tajikistan would clearly not encounter much resistance.

A Soldier from the 183rd Regiment, 1st Battalion, Virginia National Guard instructs Tajik service members about self-aid buddy care procedures during a field training exercise part of multinational exercise Regional Cooperation 2017, July 17, 2017, in Fakhrabad, Tajikistan. Hosted by Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense, RC 17 affords participants the opportunity to exercise a United Nations directive to focus counterterrorism, border security and peacekeeping operations (Photo: Staff Sgt. Michael Battles / U.S. Air Force).

A Soldier from the 183rd Regiment, 1st Battalion, Virginia National Guard instructs Tajik service members about self-aid buddy care procedures during a field training exercise part of multinational exercise Regional Cooperation 2017, July 17, 2017, in Fakhrabad, Tajikistan. Hosted by Tajikistan’s Ministry of Defense, RC 17 affords participants the opportunity to exercise a United Nations directive to focus counterterrorism, border security and peacekeeping operations (Photo: Staff Sgt. Michael Battles / U.S. Air Force).

Neighbouring countries, however, appear keenly aware of Tajikistan’s fragility. In October, Tajikistan will play host to joint exercises by rapid reaction forces from the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, organized under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) approximately 15 kilometres from the Tajik-Afghan border. Two weeks prior to the aforementioned ISIS attack, Russian and Tajik troops also held exercises explicitly intended to help prepare Tajikistan for the detection and interdiction of militants attempting to cross into the country from Afghanistan. China, however, has been largely missing from the effort to develop Tajik capabilities. In October 2016, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) held large-scale counter-terrorism exercises with the Tajik National Army, involving more than 10,000 troops from the two sides, near the border with Afghanistan. But China seems unwilling, or unable, to assist in the sustained work of developing a modern, professional military force to defend Tajikistan.

OSCE Programme Office in Dushanbe supports advanced explosive ordnance disposal courses.  Tajik Officer filling in explosive ordnance disposal operation briefing board, Lyaur, Tajikistan, 19 July 2017 (Photo: Nozim Kalandarov / OSCE).

OSCE Programme Office in Dushanbe supports advanced explosive ordnance disposal courses. Tajik Officer filling in explosive ordnance disposal operation briefing board, Lyaur, Tajikistan, 19 July 2017 (Photo: Nozim Kalandarov / OSCE).

This is surprising as China shares a 414-kilometre border with the Central Asian state, and the collapse of state institutions in Tajikistan would inevitably have a destabilizing effect on China’s Xinjiang province. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which seeks to establish an independent Islamic state concentrated on Xinjiang, would have greater maneuverability in its operations were it to find sanctuary in a Tajik state governed by a like-minded party, though it might not find much in terms of shared resources with ISIS-KP, given that ETIM’s focus would be on Tajikistan’s eastern border with China while ISIS-KP would remain concentrated on the southern border with Afghanistan. But there is certainly a precedent for such a “live and let live” partnership, such as the Taliban’s decision to host and offer sanctuary in Afghanistan to al-Qaeda in the mid-1990s.

China’s relative lack of engagement in Tajikistan may simply be due to suspicion of President Rahmon’s strategic intentions. In 2011, Tajikistan ratified a deal, originally negotiated in 1999, which ceded 1,000 square kilometres of territory in the Pamir mountain range to China and demarcated much of the border. With a competently trained and well-equipped military, perhaps China worries, President Rahmon could just as well attempt to reclaim this ceded territory and fuel instability in nearby Xinjiang as he could combat ISIS and drug traffickers. The Chinese leadership may have assessed the current situation and determined that the least risk would be in allowing other regional partners to bolster Tajikistan’s security and then only intervene militarily if ISIS-KP does in fact establish sufficient presence to formally seize Tajik territory.

Regardless, the brazen attack on foreign tourists in Danghara is a worrying development in a volatile region. More will need to be done by the international community to ensure that the ISIS threat is contained as that group seeks purchase elsewhere.

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