2 January 2021

China Wades Into Nepal’s Political Crisis

By Sudha Ramachandran

Nepalese students affiliated with Nepal Student Union chant slogans against prime minister Khadga Prasad Oli during a protest in Kathmandu, Nepal, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha

With the political and constitutional crisis in Nepal escalating by the day and the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) undergoing a vertical split, China has stepped up its self-assumed role as mediator in the crisis.

Beijing has dispatched Guo Yezhou, a vice minister of the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party, to Kathmandu at the head of a four-member team. Since landing in Kathmandu on December 27, Guo’s team has held talks with Nepali President Bidya Devi Bhandari, Prime Minister Kharga Prasad Oli, and NCP leaders Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal. The team is likely to meet leaders of opposition parties like the Nepali Congress’s (NC) Sher Bahadur Deuba too. The Chinese team is reportedly “taking stock” of the situation in Nepal.

However, there is more on the agenda of the Chinese mission.

According to Dahal’s secretariat, in addition to the current situation in Nepal, the visiting Chinese team discussed the possibility of reuniting the NCP. China-Nepal cooperation is also said to have figured in the talks.

Guo played a major role in bringing together the Oli-led Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) (CPN-UML) and the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) (CPN-MC) in 2018 to form the NCP. Guo negotiated with the leaders of Nepal’s two main communist parties in 2017-18 to get them to contest the 2017 election on a common plank

The Covid-19 Pandemic and the Power Rivalry in South Asia

by Bhagya Senaratne

Bhagya Senaratne assesses the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on South Asia and considers the implications for regional states amid escalating Sino-U.S. competition. This essay continues the expansion of the New Normal in Asia series to include the voices of emerging scholars and analysts in both the United States and the Indo-Pacific.

For decades, South Asia has been plagued by weak governance systems and healthcare facilities that do not reach the masses who need them the most. One of the chief obstacles to addressing these issues is the animosity between the region’s strongest powers, India and Pakistan. Additionally, South Asian politics have been complicated by external realities, such as bloc politics during the Cold War, the fight against terrorism, and more recently the escalation of Sino-U.S. competition.

In 2020, at a time when the entire world is battling the pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus, South Asia has been further destabilized by the skirmish between India and China in the Galwan Valley. The smaller states that are increasingly dependent on health and economic assistance also have faced the added pressure of navigating the U.S.-China rivalry as high-level U.S. and Chinese officials made visits to the region in recent months. Accordingly, this essay considers the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic for South Asia and the future of power rivalry in the region.

Furor Over Europe’s Investment Agreement with China is Overblown

by Julia Friedlander

Despite strict lockdowns and another Brexit deadline, the European Commission won’t let 2020 go without another notch in its belt—progress in its seven-year trek towards an investment agreement with China. Many have been quick to balk, calling it tone-deaf, a gift to Beijing, a gut punch to the incoming U.S. administration. But let’s not end this year queasy with alarmism. Squeezed in the narrow straights between the end of the powerful German presidency of the European Council and Joe Biden’s inauguration, the European Union and Germany are trying to level the playing field with the United States vis-à-vis China, not hand Beijing the keys to the castle.

EU negotiators, in an ephemeral Teutonic fortress, are eager to replicate several aspects of U.S. bilateral negotiations with China. Phase 1 of the agreement, which was signed in January of this year, relieved tariff pressure on Beijing in exchange for the import of U.S. agricultural and industrial products. Phase 2, had Washington’s mood not turned overwhelmingly punitive midway through 2020, would have focused on forced technology transfers and state subsidies. The EU wants to secure market access for investors and protection against intellectual property theft through joint ventures, and better terms for foreign firms operating in China, where the government hands out plush contracts to its chosen industry. It all sounds familiar.

No, the U.S. and China Are Not Heading Towards a New Cold War


Bremmer is a foreign affairs columnist and editor-at-large at TIME. He is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy, and GZERO Media, a company dedicated to providing intelligent and engaging coverage of international affairs. He teaches applied geopolitics at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and his most recent book is Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism. 

Are the U.S. and China charging into the world’s next Cold War? Plenty of people think so, and it’s hard to fault them after the last four turbulent years. It’s also true that no country in the world poses the genuine threat to the U.S. that China does—both in terms of short-term geopolitical competition as well as long-term existential challenge. But I wouldn’t predict a “new Cold War” yet. And there are four major reasons why.

First, a critical point that gets overlooked in the “new Cold War” debate: The first Cold War emerged in the absence of an existing world order, following the wreckage of World War II. Unlike today, there were no well-established multilateral institutions (or multinational corporations as well entrenched as they are today) that could act as brakes to escalating conflicts. Even more importantly, the aftermath of the second World War ushered in a decolonization trend that created dozens of new nations which were suddenly up for grabs—a critical component of the old Cold War as the U.S. and U.S.S.R. competed across the world to win hearts, minds and governments to their respective sides. In 2020, countries are looking to hedge between the world’s two economic superpowers more than they are looking to throw in their lot with one or the other.

Washington Still Wants China to Be a Responsible Stakeholder


The U.S. policy community has produced no shortage of strategies for competing with China. Increasingly frustrated that the long-standing U.S. policy of engagement failed to turn Beijing into a “responsible stakeholder,” the Trump administration, along with a bipartisan cross section of Washington’s policy community, changed tact. Their competitive strategies are willing to impose costs on Beijing, restrict economic engagement, and tolerate greater bilateral friction to push back on China and more aggressively defend U.S. interests. But competition, it is often pointed out, is not an end in itself. What, then, do these competitive strategies seek to achieve?

Washington’s objectives in shaping China’s international behavior remain largely unchanged, even as the means for achieving them have shifted. This is seldom acknowledged, in part because it doesn’t fit comfortably with the narratives of either hawks or doves on China. In addition to deterring Chinese aggression and maintaining its strategic position in the region, the United States is still trying to shape China into a rule-abiding and system-sustaining member of the international community. In other words, it continues to seek to shape China into a “responsible stakeholder,” just as Robert Zoellick famously called for 15 years ago. Thus, those that suggest the responsible-stakeholder approach is “dead” overstate just how much has changed for a wide swath of Washington.

Japan's Potential Contributions in an East China Sea Contingency

by Jeffrey W. Hornung

What roles could Japan play should a high-end contingency erupt in the East China Sea that finds the United States engaged in major combat operations with China?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the SDF?

What legal and political factors are likely to influence Japan's decisions to support the United States, allow the United States to access its bases in Japan for combat, and authorize the SDF to use force?

How can Japan better position itself to respond to a regional contingency, and how can the United States support Japan in these efforts?

In the Indo-Pacific region, the alliance the United States has with Japan is arguably its most important. If a high-end contingency erupts in the East China Sea and the United States becomes engaged in major conventional combat operations with China, what roles can and might Japan play? In this report, Jeffrey W. Hornung assesses the strengths and limitations of Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF), as well as legal issues pertaining to the SDF use of force and U.S. base access in a contingency for combat operations that may not be directly tied to the defense of Japan.

The Improvement of the PLA’s Close Air Support Capability

By Derek Solen

In August 2020 the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) indicated that some of its units had made technological and procedural advancements in its capability to provide close air support (CAS). The PLA has been working to develop the systems and procedures to conduct CAS safely and effectively for more than a decade. While these and other recent developments may indicate that the PLA has finally built the foundation of a complex of systems and procedures for safe and effective CAS, the PLA’s capability to conduct CAS is far from mature.

China’s rise as a global security actor: implications for NATO

“We recognize that China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.” With these words in the December 2019 London Declaration, NATO leaders made clear that China has become a new strategic point of focus for the alliance.

Despite the careful language, this shift reflects growing concern among NATO members over China’s geopolitical rise and its growing power-projection capabilities, as well as the impact that these may have on the global balance of power. Today, China is not only taking a central role in Indo-Pacific security affairs but is also becoming an increasingly visible security actor in Europe’s periphery. As NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg noted, “this is not about moving NATO into the South China Sea, but it is about taking into account that China is coming closer to us.”

In the new report “China’s rise as a global security actor: implications for NATO” MERICS senior analyst Helena Legarda and IISS research fellow Meia Nouwens explore some of the main challenges that China poses for the alliance and propose some courses of action that NATO may follow to address them. The authors assert that “the allies have agreed that facing their ‘China challenge’ through NATO is an imperative, but how quickly they can reach consensus on how to do so will be the real test.”

The report is part of the China Security Project of MERICS and IISS. The concluding chapter can be read below on this page. You can also download the full report as a pdf.

The China Challenge after 2020

The most urgent and immediate issues facing President-elect Joseph Biden will be domestic ones. Still, foreign policy will inevitably and necessarily become a major focus of the new administration.

President-elect Biden prides himself on his international expertise, but he will quickly discover that the world has changed profoundly in the four years since he was vice president. At the core of this transformation lies China—a rising economic and military superpower with huge ambitions and a global presence that is shaping not just Asia, but also Africa, Latin America, and Europe. At the same time, international relations and national power are increasingly defined in terms of science and technology. If you ask the Pentagon what will determine whether U.S. power will remain preeminent, the answer is that it all depends on whether America can retain its technological edge.

In the Obama years, Europe saw China as primarily an Asian concern. But today, China is a major and growing presence in Europe. Chinese officials, with money to spend, are all over Europe looking for large infrastructure investments as part of the Belt and Road Initiative designed to link Europe to China. Already, China has effectively taken ownership of the Greek port of Piraeus with the stated intent of making it Europe’s biggest and most important maritime hub. Much of China’s push has been IT—with a particular focus on tech giant Huawei as a provider of low-cost telecommunications equipment intended to monopolize Europe’s conversion to 5G networks.

Conflict with China Is Not Inevitable … But the Chances of One Are Increasing

China’s current strategies of economic and military coercion and territorial “salami-slicing” are causing other countries to view it as a predator and untrustworthy and they are aligning and coalescing in an effort to balance and, if required, counter its predatory behaviour. The result is a situation that could easily get out of hand and lead to conflict.

Key Points

Recognising its geographic and economic vulnerabilities, China is moving rapidly to acquire the resources it needs in order to continue to grow.

That strategy, however, has caused other countries to view China as a predator and untrustworthy.

They are aligning, therefore, and coalescing in an effort to balance China and, if required, counter its predatory behaviour.

That situation could easily get out of hand and lead to conflict.


The current standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in the Himalayan region – the previous one lasted for 73 days and ended on 27 August 2017 – appears to have reached a stalemate. Both sides have conducted several rounds of negotiations, with little progress to show for them. One observer, citing unnamed government sources, claims that Beijing is trying to coerce New Delhi via meetings between the two countries’ diplomatic and military personnel into pulling its troops from the commanding positions that they currently occupy first before it withdraws its own troops. It would be extremely naïve of the Indian Government to do so, given the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) track record of deceit (the Australian branch of an organisation that is banned in China lists some examples of the CCP’s lies and subterfuge; another source offers a different insight here and yet another here). In this context, the eminent Sinologist Arthur Waldron’s 1998 speech is prophetic. New Delhi is unlikely to do so, however, leading the Indian Chief of Defence Staff to comment that the standoff could lead to larger conflict. The standoff and its consequent unproductive negotiations are but one example of the mutual suspicion that India and China share.

Britain’s General Percy Hobart Was a Genius Tanker

by Warfare History Network

An army that will be poised for victory requires élan, military intellect, a penchant for tactical and strategic innovation, and the zeal to use the most qualified individuals for training and leadership. This dictum was violated with the curious circumstances of the forced retirement of Maj. Gen. Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart shortly before hostilities were to commence in Western Europe and the North African littoral during the early months of World War II.

Hobart’s forced retirement occurred despite his spectacular rise through the young Royal Tank Corps (RTC) for well over a decade. Fortunately, Prime Minister Winston Churchill retrieved him from the Home Guard and empowered him to develop and train first the 11th Armored Division and then the 79th Armored Division, which would gain historical acclaim by the assortment of specialized armored vehicles (“Hobart’s Funnies”) fielded by this unit.

A Volunteer For the Royal Tank Corps

Hobart was born in Taina Tal, India, in 1885; his father was a civil servant there. He graduated from Clifton College and began, as his biographer Kenneth Macksey states, “an initially orthodox military career” by attending the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich in 1902. After graduation, he was posted to the elite 1st Bengal Sappers and Miners in the Indian Army in 1906. However, unorthodoxy was soon exhibited by Hobart, coupled with a keen intellect and an often abrupt, argumentative manner.

2020 appears to be a good year for counterterrorism

Daniel L. Byman

In October, the FBI arrested over a dozen men tied to the anti-government “boogaloo” movement and a paramilitary group, the “Wolverine Watchmen.” The men allegedly plotted to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), put her on trial or treason for taking tough measures to fight covid-19, and storm the state capitol building to instigate a civil war. The alleged Whitmer plot, along with constant disinformation claiming an election coup, bizarre QAnon conspiracy theories and images of burning cities, seemed to embody the extremism that appears to permeate America today.

Although many Americans are eager to put this year behind them, 2020 also had some surprising bright spots. So far, we’ve seen no foreign jihadist attacks on U.S. soil, and despite the grim headlines, the actual number of deaths from white supremacists and other domestic terrorists is small.


Data from the New America Foundation shows that zero Americans died from jihadist attacks in the United States this year. For 2020 so far, New America tallies eight terrorism deaths on U.S. soil, far fewer than the 30 Americans killed in 2019. Kyle Rittenhouse was charged with killing Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wis. Police believe a “men’s rights” activist planned to attack a New Jersey judge and killed her son when he opened the door. In Portland, police killed a self-described anti-fascist as they attempted to arrest him on charges of a member of the group Patriot Prayer.

How Biden Would Wage Great Power Competition


If you are looking for a sense of the future of the Pentagon after the November election, don’t watch the horse-race polls between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden. You can ignore the pundits and even much of the news. Just read the last National Defense Strategy, which has served as the Pentagon’s bible for investment, research, and training since former Defense Secretary James Mattis unveiled it in 2018. The strategy describes a future environment of great power competition with the U.S. pitted against China and Russia in a long-term race for innovation, influence, and advantage. No matter who is elected president, that is unlikely to change. Where Biden may part from Trump, is how the United States goes about it. 

The defense strategy is an extension of the White House’s wider 2017 National Security Strategy. Both are products of the Trump administration, but they are also a continuation of policy and budget moves that began under the Obama administration, especially the “pivot to Asia.” Mike Carpenter, managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania, says that Biden would create his own strategy, but that great power competition still would be the primary focus. More importantly, he argues, a Biden administration would actually get to work executing it much more robustly. 

Everybody Spies in Cyberspace. The U.S. Must Plan Accordingly.

Amy Zegart

The recently revealed SolarWinds hack unfolded like a scene from a horror movie: Victims frantically barricaded the doors, only to discover that the enemy had been hiding inside the house the whole time. For months, intruders have been roaming wild inside the nation’s government networks, nearly all of the Fortune 500, and thousands of other companies and organizations. The breach—believed to be the work of an elite Russian spy agency—penetrated the Pentagon, nuclear labs, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and other offices that used network-monitoring software made by Texas-based SolarWinds. America’s intelligence agencies and cyberwarriors never detected a problem. Instead, the breach was caught by the cybersecurity firm FireEye, which itself was a victim.

The full extent of the damage won’t be known for months, perhaps years. What’s clear is that it’s massive—“a grave risk to the federal government … as well as critical infrastructure entities and other private sector organizations,” declared DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, an organization not known for hyperbole.

The immediate question is how to respond. President-elect Joe Biden issued a statement vowing to “disrupt and deter our adversaries from undertaking significant cyber attacks in the first place” by “imposing substantial costs.” Members of Congress were far less measured, issuing ever more forceful threats of retaliation. It was a weird bipartisan moment in which liberal Senate Democrats sounded like hawkish House Republicans, issuing statements about “virtually a declaration of war” and the need for a “massive response.”

Laurie Santos, Yale Happiness Professor, on 5 Things That Will Make You Happie


As a professor of psychology at Yale and host of The Happiness Lab podcast, I've spent the last few years teaching simple science-backed tips to improve our well-being. I know the research inside out—but the giant dumpster fire of a year that was 2020 has had me struggling, too.

The COVID-19 pandemic has cheated us out of all the good times we live for—the weddings, the vacations, the graduations and celebrations. Our work lives have been upended and our livelihoods threatened. There are people we love who we haven't seen in months and some we'll never see again; millions of us are mourning someone close who's been taken by this awful disease. These overwhelming losses have had a devastating effect on our mental health, with rates of depression, anxiety and even suicidality surging around the world.

The good news is that there's a lot to be hopeful for in the new year. With a vaccine on the way, there's a real hope that we'll soon be returning to the way of life we miss so much. But we can't toss out our masks just yet. Even under the best public health scenarios, we're in for several more months of cancelled plans, social distancing, and skyrocketing COVID cases, all during the coldest and darkest times of the year. For a while at least, 2021 is going to feel like 2020 2.0.

12 Scientifically Proven Ways to Succeed at Your New Year's Resolutions


The pandemic doesn't seem to have dampened Americans' enthusiasm for linking a New Year to a fresh start. More than two thirds of Americans plan to make a resolution for 2021, polls show, which is roughly the same as in years past. What has changed: The most common objectives for 2021 look strikingly different from traditional New Year promises, and attitudes about when, how and why to tackle key goals have changed as well.

The reason: More than half of Americans say their usual pre-COVID January 1 resolutions—think, hitting the gym more often or nabbing a big raise—aren't applicable to their lifestyle anymore. Seven in 10 say they are tossing out materialistic pledges and instead looking to learn life skills, improve overall wellness or savor experiences, like time with family, according to a survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Affirm.

And while doing a better job of managing money remains a top priority, the motivation people give for wanting to make a financial change has shifted too. Previously, the top reason people gave for pledging to adopt better money habits in a new year was to live a debt-free life, according to Fidelity Investments, which conducts an annual poll on financial resolutions for the New Year. In 2021, this year's survey found, they're looking to achieve greater peace of mind.

Britain and the European Union agree on the hardest Brexit

THE POST-BREXIT deal announced on December 24th by Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, and Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s president, has come extremely late for Christmas. It is also painfully close to the end of the standstill transition period on December 31st. It falls short of the best-in-class, comprehensive free-trade agreement that Mr Johnson once promised. And costly disruption to today’s frictionless trade is inevitable when Britain leaves the EU’s single market and customs union on January 1st. All the same, the deal is welcome. It will at least constitute a base on which to build further agreements.

Brexit has counterposed two visions of sovereignty. Mr Johnson rejoiced over Britain gaining the unfettered ability to write its own laws. Ms von der Leyen suggested instead that sovereignty was best assured by “pooling our strength and speaking together in a world full of great powers.” Both spoke of remaining close partners and allies.

What Joe Biden's Africa Strategy Might Look Like

by Michael Shurkin

The election of Joe Biden as the next president may present the United States with a welcome opportunity to reset its relationship with sub-Saharan Africa. Two of the priorities of the Trump administration in the region had merit, namely a focus on competition with China and a reduced emphasis on counterterrorism. Yet the former never translated into a substantive strategy, and the latter has meant that continuing counterterrorism efforts—and yes they are still ongoing and, regrettably, necessary—have lurched on zombie-like without any particular strategic vision guiding them. Meanwhile, the available evidence suggests that sub-Saharan Africans see the United States as only interested in them as pawns in some great-power competition. Biden could change all of this, for the better.

The first and most important thing any American administration can do is see sub-Saharan Africa for what it is: a dynamic region hosting a large and growing portion of humanity. Africa's share of the global population currently stands at 17 percent, according to the United Nations (PDF), and that is projected to grow to about 25 percent by 2050 and 40 percent by 2100. Four sub-Saharan African countries are projected to be among the 10 most populous nations in 2100, among them Nigeria (700 million), Democratic Republic of Congo (362 million), Ethiopia (294 million) and Tanzania (286 million). America, in comparison, is projected to host 424 million people.

Persistent Security Concerns in an Election Year

by Jeffrey W. Hornung

Donald Trump entered office four years ago with a promise to pursue an “America First” strategy. Different from its predecessors, which focused largely on expanding multilateral free-trade agreements, embracing relations with alliances, and pursuing stable relations with China, the Trump administration focused on crafting bilateral trade agreements, pursuing strategic competition with China, and strengthening alliance ties while concurrently criticizing them. The United States will begin 2021 with a new administration led by Joe Biden.

Aside from the possibility of black-swan events, the security challenges facing the incoming Biden administration are likely to remain largely the same as those in 2020. As such, it is likely the United States will continue to prioritize similar issues in its outreach to the Indo-Pacific region. The specifics, however, will depend on the answers the Biden administration arrives at to several questions examined below.
U.S. Approach to the Indo-Pacific Region

The increasing geopolitical, military, and economic heft of the Indo-Pacific region means the United States will likely continue to prioritize the region in 2021. This means certain elements of the Trump administration's Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy or the Obama administration's “rebalance” are likely to remain in place. This includes a focus on free trade, transparent development assistance and infrastructure support, freedom of navigation, and freedom from coercion. Because regional countries find themselves under increasing duress on many of these fronts, the Biden administration will likely continue to work with regional allies and partners to prevent further deterioration of these elements. Within the region, there are four areas that will likely remain unchanged as U.S. priorities in 2021.

Biden and the U.S. Intelligence Community

by John V. Parachini and J.D. Williams

President-elect Biden faces a wide range of policy options once he is inaugurated in January. Among them may be restoring the role of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) as a valued source of insights to underpin decisionmaking in the White House.

Given Biden's decades of government experience, he knows the importance of intelligence in national decisionmaking. As a first step Biden has chosen a new Director of National Intelligence (DNI) who has experience in both the IC and the White House that equip her to lead a renaissance in intelligence affairs. Central to such a renaissance would be renewed emphasis on the IC's continued commitment to delivering assessments and insights objectively and without political shading.

The law (PDF) that established the DNI assigned specific authorities (PDF) to the individual and the office. The DNI serves as the president's chief intelligence adviser, coordinates the funding requests for much of the IC's budget, and establishes policies and procedures that create a unity of mission without diminishing the unique strengths of individual components. In announcing Haines's nomination Biden said she “will be supported, trusted, and empowered to protect national security, without being undermined or politicized.”

President-elect Biden knows the importance of intelligence in national decisionmaking.

Addressing climate change in a post-pandemic world

By Dickon Pinner, Matt Rogers, and Hamid Samandari

Aferocious pandemic is sweeping the globe, threatening lives and livelihoods at an alarming rate. As infection and death rates continue to rise, resident movement is restricted, economic activity is curtailed, governments resort to extraordinary measures, and individuals and corporations scramble to adjust. In the blink of an eye, the coronavirus has upended the world’s operating assumptions. Now, all attention is focused on countering this new and extreme threat, and on blunting the force of the major recession that is likely to follow.

Amid this dislocation, it is easy to forget that just a few short months ago, the debate about climate change, the socioeconomic impacts it gives rise to, and the collective response it calls for were gaining momentum. Sustainability, indeed, was rising on the agenda of many public- and private-sector leaders—before the unsustainable, suddenly, became impossible to avoid.

Given the scope and magnitude of this sudden crisis, and the long shadow it will cast, can the world afford to pay attention to climate change and the broader sustainability agenda at this time? Our firm belief is that we simply cannot afford to do otherwise. Not only does climate action remain critical over the next decade, but investments in climate-resilient infrastructure and the transition to a lower-carbon future can drive significant near-term job creation while increasing economic and environmental resiliency. And with near-zero interest rates for the foreseeable future, there is no better time than the present for such investments.

War on Autopilot? It Will Be Harder Than the Pentagon Thinks


MCLEAN, Virginia — Everything is new about Northrop Grumman’s attempt to help the military link everything it can on the battlefield. One day, as planners imagine it, commanders will be able to do things like send autonomous drones into battle, change attack plans midcourse, and find other ways to remove humans and their limitations from decision chains that increasingly seem to require quantum speed. Northrop’s Innovation Center in McLean, Virginia, looks so new it could have sprung up in a simulation. Its Washington metro rail stop doesn’t even appear on many maps yet.

Northrop is hardly alone. Over the last few months, various weapons makers have begun showing off all sorts of capabilities to reporters, while military officials detail their own efforts to link up jets, tanks, ships, and soldiers. As they describe it, it’s a technological race to out-automate America’s potential adversaries. 

But real questions remain about the Pentagon’s re-imagining of networked warfare. Will it ever become more than glitzy simulations? And have military leaders thought through the implications if it does?

Today, the military’s ability to run a battlefield — its command-and-control doctrine and gear — depends partly on large-crewed, non-stealthy planes like the 1980s-designed E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, and other aircraft, ships, and ground facilities. In the modern era, the Pentagon worries that these airborne control centers have become giant, fragile targets. An advanced adversary will aim to blind and blunt a U.S. attack by neutralizing these planes, or perhaps just their on-board communications. The military is also too dependent on aging network links that differ across planes, sensors, and weapons; and that don’t offer the bandwidth that modern combat demands. 

21 Things to Look Forward to in 2021


After this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year, you might think the best thing about 2021 will simply be that it isn't 2020. Certainly, an end to the health and financial challenges, the pain, incivility and grief that have marked the past 12 months will be most welcome—although it may take several months into the New Year to get us there. But the absence of awful is not enough to make 2021 a good year; we need not just a respite from the heavy weight put upon us by the pandemic but the promise of actual joy.

Fortunately, there are plenty of things to look forward to next year, and not just the return of, well, everything—at some point, sports, culture, travel, in-person get-togethers with the people you love and care about will hopefully all make a comeback—though we're eagerly anticipating all that. But 2021 should have a lot more going for it than just the promise of a return to normalcy. Here's a sampling of all the other good stuff coming your way over the next 12 months—the events, people, technology, innovations, movies, music, TV shows and more that, hopefully, will make 2021 a very happy New Year.

2021: Will Army Modernization Survive?


WASHINGTON: The Army may have to slash troop strength and training to save its ambitious modernization program from the likely post-COVID budget crunch.

Painful choices are already painfully familiar to the Army. Even in the flush years of the Trump Administration, the Army largely funded its new weapons by cutting lower-priority programs. In 2021, the service will face Democratic control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and — potentially — the Senate, amidst the national fiscal hangover from trillions in COVID stimulus spending. The Army’s own former Chief of Staff, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, has predicted a “bloodletting” of ground-force programs to fund sea, air, and space technologies more essential to counter to China.

In previous drawdowns, long-term modernization programs have often paid the bill to protect near-term readiness and troop numbers. The head of Army Futures Command, Gen. Mike Murray, has repeatedly and publicly said he’s prioritizing which new weapons to protect. But with an aging inventory on Reagan-era equipment that’s inadequate against the current Russian threat and largely irrelevant against China, Army leaders have promised to protect modernization this time around … somehow.

Inside the Army’s Fearless, Messy, Networked Warfare Experiment


On Wednesday, the service mounted the first demonstration of Project Convergence, bringing in some 34 fresh-out-of-the-lab technologies. The goal: to show that these weapons and tools—linked and led by artificial intelligence—can allow humans to find a target, designate it as such, and strike it — from the air, from kilometers away, using any available weapon and in a fraction of the time it takes to execute that kill today. It was an ambitious test that revealed how far Army leaders have come in their goal of networked warfare across the domains of air, land, space and cyberspace. It also provided a vivid picture of how much further the Army has to go.

The scenarios involved different phases of a land invasion. In the first phase, dubbed “Penetrate,” satellites in low Earth orbit detected enemy anti-air missile ground launchers. That info was passed to a ground processing station called the Tactical Intelligence Targeting Access Node, or TITAN, more than a thousand miles away at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. The TITAN operator sent a target-data message to Yuma where a fire command was processed and sent to the Extended Range Cannon Artillery, or ERCA, the Army’s new 70-km super gun. Next, a scout helicopter — actually a surrogate for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, or FARA — located the command-and control-node of the enemy air defenses, a wheeled amphibious armored personnel carrier, using an object-detection AI dubbed Dead Center onboard the drone. An Air Launched Effects drone, or ALE, launched from the helicopter, provided a floating mesh network beyond 50 km. An autonomously flying Grey Eagle drone swooped in at 300 feet — far below its normal operating floor of 10,000 feet or so — and hit the target with a Hellfire missile.