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November 5, 2009
Notes from the Pentagon

China estimate war
The commander of the U.S. Pacific Command recently set off a new debate among China hands and the U.S. intelligence community about whether past estimates of China's military buildup were deficient.

Adm. Robert F. Willard told reporters in Seoul recently, "I would contend that in the past decade or so, China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability and capacity every year. They've grown at an unprecedented rate in those capabilities."

Asked about the unusually candid remark, a senior U.S. intelligence official did not dispute the admiral's claim. "We consider the [People's Liberation Army] to be a capable military force," the official said. "That's been our view for years, and their desire to modernize has never been in doubt." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of a policy of not publicly discussing internal assessments.

Wendy Moragi, a spokeswoman for Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis C. Blair, whose office compiles all National Intelligence Estimates, said her office regards the controversy over Adm. Willard's statement as "overblown."

"No one here seems to think Adm. Willard was making the case that we were flat-footed on China," she said.

"The intelligence community's annual threat assessments have consistently portrayed China as a rising power diplomatically, economically and militarily for more than a decade," Ms. Moragi said. "The intelligence community continually reassesses its understanding of national-security issues affecting the United States, and when new information is presented, our views and assessments can change. In fact, as it became clear that the PLA had accelerated its modernization efforts a decade ago, the intelligence-community analysis reflected it."

Ms. Moragi provided Inside the Ring with a list of statements from annual threat-briefing testimonies before Congress since 1996 by CIA Directors John M. Deutch and George J. Tenet and former DNI John D. Negroponte and Mr. Blair. All state that China's military was expanding as part of a modernization program. The testimony notes Chinese military expansion, including development and purchase of missiles, warplanes and other advanced weaponry. However, none say the buildup has exceeded earlier intelligence estimates of China's expected military modernization, as Adm. Willard contends.

The debate over intelligence estimates on China dates to the late 1990s and culminated in a successful effort by then-Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican, to pressure the CIA into creating a 12-member blue-ribbon panel of experts to review intelligence estimates on China. Although the panel's final report was kept secret, officials close to the commission stated at the time that it concluded the CIA was guilty of an "institutional predisposition" - or bias - on China's military buildup.

Recent Chinese military advances include the deployment of a new attack submarine, the development of a long-range cruise missile, precision-guided ballistic missiles and new high-technology warships.

Navy Capt. Lydia Robertson, a spokeswoman for Adm. Willard, would not elaborate on the admiral's claim.

However, she said "the admiral's remarks were a comment about the lack of clear intent from China on developing capabilities."

"As he said in that interview, one of his responsibilities is to better relations and levels of understanding regarding their intentions and military development, with a focus on collective regional engagement," Capt. Robertson said.

John J. Tkacik Jr., a China specialist and former State Department intelligence official, said China's new military technologies "are now coming out to bite us."

"And we haven't prepared for them because we have always been surprised," Mr. Tkacik told Inside the Ring. "And we're always surprised because we simply can't believe that China really is seeking regional military pre-eminence. I think that's changing now, but it might be too late."

Mr. Tkacik said a number of outside academics and researchers have been warning for years about apparent new advances in terminal guidance technologies for high-speed Chinese missiles that can re-enter the atmosphere and target moving naval ships at sea without the hypersonic speeds affecting their targeting.

"China is moving ahead across the full spectrum of new offensive military technologies and capabilities," Mr. Tkacik said, noting that some defense intelligence officials understand the problem.

"But I think there are others in the intelligence community that either don't think China is a real threat or worry that defending against new Chinese technologies might offend Beijing," Mr. Tkacik said.

China, for its part, continues to insist that its military buildup is benign. One of China's two most senior military officers was in Washington recently to outline the People's Liberation Army's position on war amid calls by U.S. military leaders for greater transparency.

"To deter and win wars remains the top priority of the armed forces, and the capability to win local wars in conditions of informati[oni]zation is vital to the capabilities for multiple military tasks," said Gen. Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the Communist Party of China's Central Military Commission, in a speech Oct. 26 to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In addition to war-fighting, Chinese military forces will be called on to work domestically, Gen. Xu said, noting that the 2.4 million troops of the PLA will conduct counterterrorism, disaster relief, peacekeeping and "protection of rights and interests," international relief, and "security and protection," an apparent reference to putting down internal dissent, as took place in Tibet in 2008 and western Xinjiang province earlier this year.

Gen. Xu also blamed recent incidents of Chinese ships harassing U.S. surveillance ships on "intensive reconnaissance missions conducted by U.S. naval ships in China's [Exclusive Economic Zone], which infringed upon Chinese interests."

The Pentagon has said the incidents were "harassment" by Chinese vessels in international waters and led to the dispatch of U.S. warships in the South China Sea and off China's northern coast.

Readiness group
A new military support group is warning that a lack of physical fitness, poor education and the problem of criminality, especially among the young, is undermining U.S. national security by limiting military recruitment for the all-volunteer armed services.

A report by Mission: Readiness, a bipartisan nonprofit organization led by senior retired military leaders, revealed that 75 percent of young people between the ages of 17 and 24 would be unable to enlist in the U.S. armed forces because they are physically unfit, have failed to graduate high school or have criminal records.

The group's report will be released at a press conference scheduled for Thursday at the National Press Club, featuring Education Secretary Arne Duncan and several retired military leaders who regard the problem as a national-security threat.

The group is calling for more early learning programs to "ensure that more young people graduate, obey the law, and have the option of military service if they choose that path," the group said in announcing the results of the report.

Those set to take part in the effort include Mr. Duncan, former NATO commander retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, retired Army Maj. Gen. James A. Kelley, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. John W. Douglass and retired Rear Adm. James Barnett.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. James W. Comstock, who is leading the initiative, told Inside the Ring that the report is not only disturbing, but also a call to action.

"We tend to think of today's military in the terms of high-performance jets, [unmanned aerial vehicles], powerful tanks, supercarriers and smart weapons," he said. "But I can tell you from personal experience that the real secret weapon in our arsenal is people."

Vershbow on Iran
Alexander Vershbow, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, recently explained how the Obama administration used a new intelligence estimate as the basis for abandoning a Pentagon plan to deploy long-range missile-defense interceptors in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic.

Mr. Vershbow, a former ambassador to Russia from 2001 to 2005, told defense reporters Oct. 8 that an intelligence estimate on Iran's long-range missile capability was updated earlier this year under the new administration.

"It was based on accumulated evidence, both in terms of the actual deployments we were seeing and the pace of testing of a wide spectrum of Iranian missiles, including space-launched vehicles, that could be converted into IRBMs or ICBMs," he said during a breakfast meeting, using the acronym for intermediate-range ballistic missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

"That led us to the judgment on which the new policy was based, namely that they have a much larger arsenal already in the field or coming in within the next few years of short- and medium-range missiles, which argued for, in phase one and phase two, deploying additional assets to deal with those threats," Mr. Vershbow said. Mr. Vershbow said the George W. Bush administration policy did not address these near-term threats.

"It only involved the 10 [ground-based interceptors] in Poland that would not actually be deployed until 2017, 2018, and didn't have the same capability against these short-range threats to Southeastern Europe," he said.

"But at the same time, the new threat assessment does acknowledge that while the development of ICBMs may be coming along more slowly than our 2005-06 estimate suggested, they're still coming," Mr. Vershbow added.

He said the new European missile-defense plan will boost Middle East missile-defense efforts. He said Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states are "extremely worried" about Iran's development of nuclear weapons and the threat they pose to the region, which has led to greater interest in missile defenses. Some Patriot anti-missile systems are deployed in several nations in the Persian Gulf, and many are interested in buying more Patriots or newer systems, he said.

"They also worry that if diplomacy fails and tensions rise with Iran, between us and Iran or between Israel and Iran, they could be the ones caught in the crossfire in any military dust-ups," Mr. Vershbow said. "So that also fuels their interest in missile-defense capabilities and other defense capabilities."

The new approach relies on ship-based SM-3 interceptors and future upgraded versions to be developed and deployed in four phases, with the last resulting in a souped-up version called SM-3, Block 2A.

Mr. Vershbow said "eventually phase four of our system ... will take advantage of the next generation of the SM-3, the Block 2A, which is the type of missile that would be deployed both on Aegis ships, but also at the northern land-based site which would provide full coverage of the northern part of NATO Europe against IRBM threats."

The 2A is still in the early stages of development and "could have some capability against ICBMs, but in the ascent phase, from launch points closer to Iran as compared to the [ground-base interceptors], which would get them in the midcourse," he said.

Mr. Vershbow was asked by a reporter if the Bush administration would have reached the same conclusion as the Obama national-security team about abandoning long-range interceptors in Europe.

"I think it's possible they may have taken a more active approach to dealing with these immediate threats in Southeastern Europe than was envisaged under the plan adopted in 2005-06, which really was driven more by how to enhance defense of the U.S. homeland using a third site after number one in Alaska, number two in California, rather than focusing first and foremost on defense of our forces and our allies in Europe," he said, acknowledging that the Obama policy is a "shift of focus from homeland to NATO-wide defense."

However, he asserted that "we were not downgrading defense of the homeland by any means with this decision" because a forward-based radar will go ahead and will be able to provide radar coverage of any missiles headed for the United States.

Critics of the new policy, including former Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering, have said that the new policy will leave the continental United States vulnerable to a long-range Iranian missile attack because the SM-3 is not as capable against that threat as a ground based interceptor.

"The SM-3 Block 2B, when it finally arrives, will give you an additional anti-ICBM capability," Mr. Vershbow said. "Not too much later than the GBIs in Poland. But the overall architecture, of course, will have many more interceptors and be capable of dealing with much larger potential attacks than 10 GBIs in Poland which basically could assuredly deal with five incomings."

Mr. Vershbow said the decision was made ahead of completion of the Pentagon's major strategic review of missile defenses because of the ongoing debate with NATO and Russia, which opposed the Poland and Czech defense sites.

"We thought it would be counterproductive to delay this artificially while the rest of the review went on," Mr. Vershbow said.

The announcement was "rushed," he said, because of concerns that the plan was leaking out "in a distorted way."

Poland may still base SM-3s, and some command and control systems may still deployed in Czech Republic, he said.

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