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Jan. 22, 2015
Notes from the Pentagon

Russians advance on Ukraine
Russian military forces are crossing into eastern Ukraine in larger numbers, according to Phillip A. Karber, a Georgetown University professor currently on a fact-finding tour of the region.

“Things are really heating up — five Russian armored task forces crossed the border in last 60 hours, a force of about 75 main battle tanks, 100 infantry fighting vehicles, 100 other armored vehicles and fifty artillery systems,” said Mr. Karber, also head of the Potomac Foundation.

The increased Russian military operations come as both the United States and the NATO alliance so far have not supplied urgently needed lethal weaponry to the Ukrainian military, Mr. Karber said in an email dispatch to Inside the Ring. However, after a delay of 10 months, the U.S. Army Europe recently sent a delegation of officers to Kiev to assess Ukraine’s military needs.

“Intense combat is breaking out all across the front — from Mariupol in the south to Luhansk in the east,” Mr. Karber said.

The cease-fire negotiated in Minsk, Belarus, in September is not holding, according to Mr. Karber. He notes that in the more than 136 days since the cease-fire agreement went into effect, not a day has passed without shooting, and thousands have been killed and wounded.

“The war in Ukraine is not a ‘frozen conflict,’ it’s a freezing war,” Mr. Karber said.

Ukrainian military units, including the 93rd Mechanized Brigade and Ukrainian military volunteers who joined them, are “fighting for their life” at the contested airport in Donetsk.

Other Ukrainian units, including the 24th Mechanized Brigade and the Donbas volunteer battalion, are in danger of having their positions overrun near Bakhmutskaya, west of Luhansk. Additionally, Ukraine’s 25th Airborne Brigade is facing heavy attack and is at risk of being cut off at the town of Debaltseve.

“The current escalation would not have happened if the U.S. had provided the Ukrainian defenders with Javelin anti-tank weapons because [the Ukrainians] could have handled the tank attack at the airport without having to throw in their own armored reserves,” Mr. Karber said. “The Javelin is critical because Ukrainian anti-tank missiles can’t penetrate Russian reactive armor.”

Mr. Karber said the Obama administration’s policy toward the Ukraine conflict is “self-defeating” because it seeks to promote a cease-fire with diplomatic efforts while ignoring four months of systematic Russian violations of the cease-fire.

The White House and Pentagon have said they are reviewing Ukraine’s requests for weapons.

Mr. Karber also spent time with a unit of Ukrainian military volunteers called Dnepr-1, after the popular Dnepropetrovsk professional soccer team. Two-thirds of Dnepr-1’s staff are civilians, mostly women.

The volunteers are funded through the Ministry of the Interior and from local Ukrainian businesses and public fundraising.

“Dnepr-1 has all the characteristics of a middle-class version of Mao’s People’s War — the best antidote I have seen to Russia’s Hybrid Warfare strategy,” Mr. Karber said.

The unit has troops assigned to over a dozen military posts in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Dnepropetrovsk and Donetsk, and many are engaged in combat operations.

U.S. tells Taiwan to bolster defenses
The Obama administration recently informed Taiwan’s government that it must do more to bolster its military forces, amid concerns that the U.S. Navy will not be able to come to the island’s defense if it is attacked by China’s growing military forces.

“The reality is there will be difficulties getting forces to the island in a time of crisis,” said a U.S. official familiar with internal policy discussions on Taiwan.

A recent U.S. military assessment of Taiwan’s defense capabilities concluded that Taipei’s military forces have limited capabilities and aging military weaponry that would be able to withstand several days of a military conflict with China. Taiwan believes its forces could hold out against a Chinese attack for a month.

Current U.S. battle plans for Taiwan call for dispatching several U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups to the island. However, current U.S. military commitments to the Middle East and sharp budget cuts have made rapid carrier deployments to Taiwan a daunting challenge.

Last month, President Obama signed long-delayed legislation that will allow the Pentagon to sell four used frigates to Taiwan as part of efforts to bolster Taiwanese defense forces. Other new weapons, including missiles and mines, are expected to be transferred in the next two years.

The administration also is considering assisting Taiwan with building diesel electric submarines but is having difficulty in working out technology transfers.

Another problem is Chinese spy penetrations of Taiwan’s government and military.

Adm. Samuel Locklear, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command that would be in charge of defending Taiwan from a Chinese attack, recently informed Taipei that the government there must do more to counteract Chinese intelligence penetrations.

“Taiwan is a [counterintelligence] disaster,” the official said.

Several spy cases have been uncovered in recent months.

Taiwan last week revealed it has arrested an alleged Chinese spy ring that included five Taiwanese current and former military personnel linked to spying for China, Defense News reported Tuesday.

Thornberry’s agenda
The new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry, this week outlined his priorities for the powerful committee in Congress. The Texas Republican made clear that he plans to reform the way the Pentagon and military work.

In a speech to the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, Mr. Thornberry said none of his predecessors at the helm of the committee has had to deal with the wide array of serous and complex threats that face the nation.

“From the renewed aggression of major powers and grappling with new domains of warfare to terrorism, failed states and horrible diseases, the list of security challenges is long,” Mr. Thornberry said, adding that among the threats are “a resurgent Russia and rising China.”

Mr. Thornberry discussed some of the tensions that have existed historically between Congress and the executive branch on how best to build and maintain military forces needed to protect the country.

He noted that “it was Congress that forced the Pentagon to procure the Predator” drone, a signature weapon system for the U.S. military today.

“They didn’t want it; it was counter-cultural,” he said. “Pilots were not so fond of pilotless aircraft. But few people today would reverse that call.”

Congress needs to be the “connective tissue” with successive administrations on building military capabilities that can deal with threats in a volatile and unpredictable time.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, appearing at a workshop for Republican members of Congress last week, told the assembled members not to worry about whether the people around the world “love you,” Mr. Thornberry said, adding that Mr. Blair told the Republicans that “what the world needs is for America to be strong.”

“To be strong, we have to stop the slide in defense budgets that has reduced base defense spending 21 percent since 2010,” Mr. Thornberry said.

Defense cuts under President Obama have resulted in “plummeting readiness levels,” broken military equipment, grounded jets and soldiers who can’t practice at firing ranges.

The chairman also warned about the dangers to U.S. security from lack of training, aging equipment and increased operations that stretch military forces.

Weapons acquisition also is broken and must be fixed, he said.

Making the Pentagon more efficient and helping the military become more agile in confronting current threats “will be a major focus of our congressional oversight,” Mr. Thornberry said.

“Our oversight must be fair, aggressive, and thorough as the people’s — and the taxpayers’ — voice on national security,” he said.

“As long as I am privileged to hold this job, defense reform will be a priority — not for its own sake, but for the sake of ensuring our military is as prepared as possible for the wide array of threats we face today and for the unknown security challenges which confront us tomorrow.”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.

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