- - Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Russian military activities and strategic nuclear forces are returning to a Cold War-era posture, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific said Wednesday.

“Russia in the last few months has returned to, I would say, nearly a Cold War level of activity that goes towards our homeland, with long-range attacks, exercises and those types of things,” Adm. Samuel Locklear, the commander, told the House Armed Services Committee. “We also know that Russia will improve their strategic nuclear deterrent on what’s thought as their east coast, which is in the Northern Pacific.”

Russia is also building up its submarine forces in Asia, and Moscow’s military forces are seeking increased influence in the Arctic region, Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, Adm. Locklear testified.

The four-star admiral said increasing Russian activities, along with threats from North Korea and China, are being monitored closely with intelligence and surveillance systems.

In his prepared statement to the committee, Adm. Locklear said Russia is “reasserting itself” politically and militarily in the Pacific.

Russian navy and long-range aviation “recently increased significantly, but not above Cold War levels,” he stated. “Though challenged by maintenance and logistical issues, Russian Navy cruisers, destroyers and frigates have increased their operations and reach,” with Russian warships sailing to the Middle East and Europe, and Russian Baltic fleet ships sailing to the Asia-Pacific.

“Russian [Tu-95] Bear bombers and reconnaissance aircraft regularly fly missions in the Sea of Japan and continue operations as far east as Alaska and the West Coast of the continental U.S.,” he said.

Another concern is Russia’s deployment of a new class of ballistic missile submarine, the Borei-class, later this year, along with upgrades to Russian land-based missiles that “will modernize Moscow’s nuclear capability in the Asia-Pacific,” the admiral said.

Russian ballistic missile and attack submarines are also active in the Pacific, as Moscow seeks to demonstrate military capabilities in the region.

The Pacific commander also voiced concerns about maintaining U.S. military readiness in the face of sharp Obama administration budget cuts. Adm. Locklear outlined a number of shortcomings in U.S. force capabilities in the region, including gaps with undersea warfare capabilities; lack of intelligence; surveillance and reconnaissance assets; shortcomings in space systems; battle management and command-and-control; and cyberwarfare, munitions, air and missile defenses, fuel and airlift.

IRAN’S CHOKEPOINT STRATEGY

Iran’s support for Houthi rebels in Yemen is raising concerns among defense and intelligence officials that Tehran is covertly moving to take control of a second strategic chokepoint in the oil-rich Middle East.

Iran for years has threatened to close or restrict shipping traffic through the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, where some 35 percent of the world’s oil passes in tankers.

Now, with pro-Iranian Houthi rebels in control in Sanaa, the U.S. military fears Iran may be eying the Bab-el-Mandeb, a chokepoint on the Red Sea that could control all shipping traffic through the Suez Canal.

“It seems to have been completely missed on why the Iranians want surrogates in power in Yemen,” said a U.S. intelligence official. “If Iran can place a stooge government in Yemen, it can control both the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el Mandeb.”

The Bab el Mandeb, or “Gateway of Anguish” is a 20-mile-wide strait said to be named after an Arab legend about an earthquake separating Asia and Africa.

It’s estimated that 3.3 million barrels of oil pass through the strait daily en route to the Mediterranean and Europe. For the Strait of Hormuz, from which Iranian missiles and missile craft can directly threaten shipping traffic from its coast, some 17 million barrels of oil a day are shipped.

Iranian control of both the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el Mandeb would give Tehran tremendous strategic power in the region, the official said.

Former Pentagon official Michael Rubin agrees.

“The Bab el Mandeb is the most strategic waterway most Americans have never heard of,” said Mr. Rubin, now with the American Enterprise Institute. “The Suez Canal is meaningless if Iran shutters the Bab el Mandeb. And, if Iran is able to interfere with shipping through both the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el Mandeb, they can effectively blockade Saudi Arabia.”

Tehran, in recent years, has also been cultivating ties to Djibouti, the small North African state on the other side of the Bab el Mandeb.

“At the very least, the Iranians want to make it more expensive and difficult for the Americans to operate there, and if they can win a toehold on the other side of the Bab, all the better,” AEI’s Mr. Rubin said. “Yemen gets their foot in the door; the Bab el Mandeb means they can slam it shut at will.”

Iran has deployed two warships to waters near Yemen, The Associated Press reported April 8.

Robert Rook, a Yemen specialist at Towson University, said the Iranian dispatch of naval vessels is largely symbolic because Iran is outgunned in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea by U.S. and regional naval forces.

Mr. Rook said the oil trade through the Bab el Mandeb does not compare to the oil shipping through Hormuz, where any disruption or threat of disruption would affect Europe and global oil markets.

“While I see no imminent, direct Iranian threat to the oil traffic through the Bab el Mandeb, the most recent Iranian naval presence off of Yemen is part of a wider pattern of behaviors that signal the continued expansion of Iranian interest and influences in the region,” he said. “It is this larger regional agenda, rather than Iran’s naval activity or even its support for Houthi rebels that is the greater concern.”

CAMBODIA’S ‘YEARS OF ZERO’

A survivor of the mass killings carried out by the fanatical communist Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia that began 40 years ago this month has revealed new details of the horror inflicted on the people of the small Southeast Asian nation.

A first-person account by Seng Ty, who was 7 years old when the murderous Pol Pot regime took power in Phnom Penh, reveals the suffering and death that took place as the communists sought to transform the country into a socialist agrarian state.

The Khmer Rouge produced what has become known as the killing fields, some 20,000 mass graves used to bury suspected regime opponents.

Mr. Seng recounts in his book, “Years of Zero: Coming of Age Under the Khmer Rouge,” how the Maoist regime systematically emptied cities and towns of anyone classified as “New People” — those who were middle class or not communist revolutionaries. The title comes from the 1975 declaration by the Khmer Rouge that a new era was beginning and that year was Year Zero.

Mr. Seng’s father, a medical doctor, was tortured and executed for being middle class. His mother died after being worked to death and fed starvation-level rations. All seven of his older brothers and sisters died from starvation.

Communist indoctrination sessions were part of the mental torture under the Khmer Rouge. Everyone was told that under the new regime “Angkar,” or “the organization,” owned everyone and everything. Buddhism, practiced by 95 percent of the population, was banned.

“The Khmer Rouge were following the Maoist agrarian plan to eliminate” wealthy people, Mr. Seng wrote. “As they saw it, killing the rich and destroying religion [were] an act of revenge against classicism and social divisions.”

The Pol Pot regime was ousted by Vietnamese military forces in 1979, ending the savagery that left 3 million people dead.

Mr. Seng escaped to Thailand when he was 13 years old and eventually resettled in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he is a teacher.

Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.

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