Moscow — Russia warned the United States on Tuesday against sending warships to the Black Sea, urging American forces to stay away from the annexed Crimean peninsula “for their own good” as the situation along Ukraine’s border caused increasing concern in the West. The U.S. Secretary of State, meeting with Ukrainian and NATO officials in Brussels, made it clear that the Biden administration, along with its allies in Europe, has Ukraine’s back and considers Russia’s ongoing military buildup in the region “very provocative.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry said on Friday that Washington had informed Ankara that two U.S. warships would pass through Turkish waters this week to be deployed in the Black Sea. The deployment would come amid a significant escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and Ukraine’s forces, which have U.S. and European support.
Hostilities first flared in 2014 when Russia unilaterally annexed Crimea — a peninsula that sticks out into the Black Sea and is home to a Russian navy base — away from Ukraine, drawing condemnation from the Western world and a series of sanctions.
“There is absolutely nothing for American ships to be doing near our shores,” Ryabkov said, warning there was a very high risk of unspecified incidents if U.S. military hardware were to be positioned in the Black Sea.
“We warn the United States that it will be better for them to stay far away from Crimea and our Black Sea coast,” Ryabkov was quoted as saying. “It will be for their own good.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby declined during a regular press briefing on Friday to confirm the Turkish government’s statement that U.S. warships were being sent to the Black Sea. He noted that the U.S. “routinely” operates in the Black Sea, but said he wouldn’t “speak to operations.”
The current escalation has added strain to already tense U.S.-Russian relations. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russia against aggressive actions in an interview aired over the weekend, saying any aggression in Ukraine would have consequences.
Ryabkov responded on Tuesday, accusing the Russian “adversary” of trying to undermine Russia’s position on the international stage. He reiterated Russia’s readiness to defend the interests of its citizens, and ethnic Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was preparing itself in the event any new sanctions should be imposed on Moscow by the U.S. or its global partners.
Meanwhile, Russia has continued to move forces into both Crimea and the region along its border with Ukraine. The Defense Ministry reported on Tuesday that 15 warships and vessels of the Caspian Flotilla had been sent to the Black Sea as part of previously announced military exercises.
Ukraine said earlier this week that Russia had already massed more than 40,000 troops along its border, and at least 40,000 more in Crimea. Russia says the troop buildup is part of exercises, and has stressed that its forces will go where they want, when they want on Russian territory.
“Very provocative action”
Top U.S. officials are in Europe this week, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Blinken. Austin announced during a stop in Germany on Tuesday that the U.S. was going to deploy an additional 500 troops to that country.
When asked if the move was meant as a message to Russia, he said it was “a sign to NATO” of the U.S. commitment to the transatlantic alliance, and of the firm commitment to Germany. Under President Donald Trump, Washington said it would withdraw thousands of the American forces who’ve been stationed in Germany for decades. That decision was suspended by the Biden administration, and now the force is set to grow.
Blinken, meanwhile, was in Brussels, meeting NATO partners, and he met separately with his Ukrainian counterpart to discuss the standoff with Russia.
“The United States stands firmly behind the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and I’m her to reaffirm that with the foreign minister today,” Blinken said. “That’s particularly important in a time when we’re seeing, unfortunately, Russia take very provocative action when it comes to Ukraine. We’re now seeing the largest concentration of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border since 2014. That is a big concern not only to Ukraine, but to the United States and indeed to many of our allies and partners.”
Sitting across from him, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the Russian buildup was “taking place not only along the border of Ukraine, but along the border of the democratic world. For thousands of kilometers to the north and to the east of our border with Russia, there is no democracy. So, this is the struggle that is taking place between democracies and authoritarianism, and in this struggle the support of the United States is absolutely crucial, and deeply appreciated.”
Kuleba thanked NATO, also, and said that warnings already conveyed to Moscow through diplomatic channels, “will be supported by actions that make it very clear for Russia that the price of further aggression against Ukraine will be too heavy for it to bear.”
While no NATO deployments have been confirmed, Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed the alliance was planning to position 40,000 more troops and 15,000 pieces of military equipment close to Russian territory. He didn’t elaborate, but said that “in response to the military activity of the alliance that threatens Russia, we have taken appropriate measures.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier on Tuesday that he was “seriously concerned” by Russia’s deployment of additional forces to the Ukrainian border.
“Russia is now trying to reestablish some kind of sphere of influence where they try to decide what neighbors can do,” Stoltenberg said.
CBSNews.com’s Tucker Reals contributed to this report.
PUBLISHED THU, MAR 18 20218:45 PM EDTUPDATED FRI, MAR 19 20213:07 AM EDTEvelyn Cheng@CHENGEVELYNSHAREShare Article via FacebookShare Article via TwitterShare Article via LinkedInShare Article via EmailKEY POINTS
The first high-level gathering of U.S. and Chinese officials under President Joe Biden kicked off with an exchange of insults at a pre-meeting press event Thursday, according to NBC News.
The two-day talks are set to conclude Friday.
A planned four-minute photo session for the officials to address reporters ended up lasting one hour and 15 minutes due to a frothy exchange, according to NBC News
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd R), joined by national security advisor Jake Sullivan (R), speaks while facing Yang Jiechi (2nd L), director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, and Wang Yi (L), China’s foreign minister at the opening session of U.S.-China talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska on March 18, 2021.Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images
A planned four-minute photo session for the officials to address reporters ended up lasting one hour and 15 minutes due to a frothy exchange, according to NBC News. Both the Chinese and U.S. side kept calling the reporters back into the room so they could add remarks.
Expectations were already low for the meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi, director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party.
In his opening remarks, Blinken said the U.S. would discuss its “deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber attacks on the United States, economic coercion toward our allies.”
“Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability. That’s why they’re not merely internal matters, and why we feel an obligation to raise these issues here today,” Blinken said. “I said that the United States relationship with China will be competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be, adversarial where it must be.”The United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.Yang JiechiDIRECTOR OF THE CENTRAL FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMISSION
Beijing considers issues in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan as part of its domestic affairs, and the officials reiterated at the meeting that China is firmly opposed to foreign interference.
Yang said the U.S. side “carefully orchestrated” the dialogue, according to an official translation reported by NBC.
“I think we thought too well of the United States, we thought that the U.S. side will follow the necessary diplomatic protocols,” Yang said, adding that “the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.”
Yang said the U.S. must deal with the Chinese side in “the right way” and reiterated Beijing’s call for cooperation.I’m hearing deep satisfaction that the United States is back, that we’re reengaged with our allies and partners. I’m also hearing deep concern about some of the actions your government is taking.Antony BlinkenU.S. SECRETARY OF STATE
Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has been consolidating its power at home and abroad. In the last year, Beijing has pushed ahead with major trade deals with Asia-Pacific neighbors and the European Union.
Chinese authorities have also emphasized their success in quickly controlling the coronavirus pandemic domestically, and their claim of lifting all 1.4 billion people in the country out of poverty — both of which Yang pointed to in his meeting with U.S. officials.
“We believe that it is important for the United States to change its own image, and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world,” Yang said.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately have a comment.
State-run broadcaster CCTV said the U.S. went “seriously overtime” in its opening remarks and “provoked disputes,” according to a CNBC translation of the Mandarin-language report.WATCH NOWVIDEO03:35China will be thinking “purely in their interest” in cooperation
Blinken arrived in Alaska fresh from a trip to Japan and South Korea. He told his Chinese counterparts that what he was hearing from other countries was very different from what Wang described as hopes for demonstrations of goodwill and sincerity between the U.S. and China.
“I’m hearing deep satisfaction that the United States is back, that we’re reengaged with our allies and partners,” Blinken said. “I’m also hearing deep concern about some of the actions your government is taking. And we’ll have an opportunity to discuss those when we get down to work.”
The first round of discussions between the two countries subsequently ended after more than three hours. The two-day talks are set to conclude Friday.
Tensions between the U.S. and China escalated in the last few years under former President Donald Trump, who used tariffs and sanctions to address persistent complaints about China’s lack of intellectual property protection, requirements of forced technology transfer and other unfair business practices. The dispute initially centered on trade, before spilling over into technology, finance and the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
When President Joe Biden meets virtually with the leaders of Japan, India, and Australia on Friday, he’ll be doing much more than joining a routine gathering of nations. He’ll be showcasing the growing importance of an informal alliance of those four countries to counter China, known as “the Quad.”
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an idea formed in the aftermath of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, has never had its heads of government meet before. And despite 14 years of trying to making it an effective forum to coordinate policy in the Indo-Pacific, it rarely did much of substance.
But Friday’s session is set to change that.
Senior administration officials said the Quad will announce an “historic” and “unprecedented” financing agreement to help India, the world’s second-most-populous country, produce 1 billion vaccines by 2022. Nikkei Asia on Wednesday noted the group plans to build a supply chain of rare-earth minerals that could erode China’s dominance in the making of products such as smartphones and batteries for electric vehicles. And multiple sources say the four nations will, for the first time, release a joint statement about their shared vision for regional cooperation.
The presidential-level meeting and these moves, then, “is a declaration that the Quad is here to stay,” said Tanvi Madan, an expert on the group at the Brookings Institution.
But the group’s newfound prominence isn’t without controversy. Beijing views it (understandably) as expressly designed to thwart China’s economic and military aims.
While most experts see it that way, too, no member state — including the US — will outwardly say concerns about China animate the Quad. Instead, they claim it exists for like-minded democratic nations to improve the lives of millions in the region and maintain the geopolitical status quo.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price, for example, told reporters this week that the group deals with “urgent challenges” but wasn’t “about any single competitor.”
What happens on Friday will thus impact the future of both America’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific and US-China relations. The expectation is Biden and his counterparts will solidify the Quad’s place in those futures.
“For the United States, this is a big buy-in,” said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington, DC. “This is a pretty significant statement of American intent to build with these countries a framework for the region going forward.”
In December 2004, a 9.1-magnitude earthquake struck the Indian Ocean off the coast of Indonesia, unleashing the deadliest tsunami in recorded history. Around 230,000 people were killed by the earthquake and tsunami in a matter of hours. Its effects were felt mostly in Indonesia but also as far away as eastern Africa. The event caused an estimated $10 billion in damages worldwide, making it one of the worst-ever humanitarian catastrophes.
Armed forces from the United States, India, Japan, and Australia all pitched in to help with the response and even worked together in what was known as the Tsunami Core Group. That coordination cell was effective and proved the concept of quadrilateral cooperation. But after all the ships and helicopters returned to their bases, there was no real follow-up to turn the four-way partnership into something longer lasting.
Then, in 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was talking with aides about how to turn his more hawkish foreign policy views into actual policy. One way to do that, CFR’s Smith told me, was “to put values diplomacy at the center of [Japan’s] thinking about working with partners in the region.” Plus, it’d be good if strong democracies banded together to keep the Indo-Pacific free and open for trade, among other things.
A flurry of discussion led to some progress in 2007 as the nascent Quad held one military drill and round of dialogue. But after China sharply criticized the group’s formation, Australia (and also India, some say) got cold feet and withdrew from the four-nation team in order to maintain good relations with China.
Abe’s Quad dreams were thus crushed and remained so for 10 years.
“You have to remember that this was a different period in how these countries thought about relations with China,” Smith told me, noting they hoped to engage Beijing and thereby encourage it to become a more responsible player on the world stage. “Flash forward a decade, now we have very different thinking about Chinese power.”
Confrontation, not cooperation, with China became the preferred approach in Washington, ushered in partly over the last four years by former President Donald Trump.
In November 2017, the Trump administration revived the Quad idea with their foreign counterparts. The four nations said they’d work together to patrol regional waterways where China was acting aggressively, such as in the South China Sea. That led some commentators and Chinese officials to speculate they were witnessing the embryonic stages of an “Asian NATO,” a reference to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which began as a military alliance to counter the Soviet Union in Europe.
The Quad’s members shut down any talk of that nature, releasing public statements that never cited China’s rise for the Quad’s return. “The discussions focused on cooperation based on their converging vision and values for promotion of peace, stability and prosperity in an increasingly inter-connected region that they share with each other and with other partners,” a statement from India’s Ministry of External Affairs read at the time.
But experts are nearly unanimous that the Quad rides again because President Xi Jinping has turned China into an openly antagonistic power. Among other things, he’s solidified control over the supply chains of key industries, and harassed neighbors at sea for territorial and energy gains.
The animating idea behind the Quad, then, is that all four nations have a better chance of curbing China’s aggression together than apart. How exactly to confront Beijing, though, was the group’s long-unanswered question. “Quadrilateral cooperation was always a beautiful opportunity in search of a genuine agenda,” said Eric Sayers, an expert on US-China relations at the American Enterprise Institute.
Officials from the group have met at least seven times since 2017, but always below the presidential or prime ministerial level, to discuss concerns ranging from China’s trade practices to its growing military power. And last November, warships and warplanes from the four nations met for the Malabar military training exercise in the Indian Ocean, the greatest show of strength by the Quad members to date.
But despite various meetings and statements supporting the Quad, it wasn’t really doing more than maritime training and expressing the need for broad cooperation, experts said. The best some could say was that the group brought the nations closer together and made the idea of a four-way framework in the Indo-Pacific more palatable.
The Quad, then, was a fine venue for the nations to interact, but mostly toothless.
Toothless, that is, until now.
The Quad’s Friday meeting is a major rollout for the group
A common thread in Biden’s foreign policy is the belief that solving big problems requires the US to work with allies and partners. Confronting China is one such challenge, and the Quad serves as a ready-made way to do just that.
The new administration isn’t “looking to Quad allies just for appearances,” said Sameer Lalwani, director of the South Asia program at the Stimson Center. “It’s about real burden sharing” among “the biggest countries, largest economies, maritime powers with real naval capabilities, and democracies.”
The two expected outcomes of Friday’s meeting are cases in point. India’s billion-plus population needs help to manufacture and distribute coronavirus vaccines. Instead of turning to China for that, the Quad’s three other nations are prepared to offer financial assistance.
“Something like the vaccine initiative will be the Quad’s most prominent, tangible outcome in some ways,” said Brookings’s Madan. It also has the “added benefit of saying to the region that this isn’t just about China.”
“It’s proof of concept for the Quad,” she added.
China also produces around 60 percent of the world’s rare-earth minerals, which has both Republicans and Democrats calling for the US to challenge Beijing on that front. If China continues to mine and refine most of the world’s rare earths, it will have a greater say in the future of telecommunications, green technology, and other important industries of the future that rely on these elements.
Part of Biden’s platform is to modernize America’s economy to compete with China in those sectors, which requires loosening Beijing’s grip on the rare-earths supply chain. That’s a massive challenge, but one made easier with big countries like India, Japan, and Australia willing to help, experts say.
In addition to potential movement on climate-related matters, there’s also an expectation that the four nations will release a joint statement, the first such statement of its kind for the Quad. Stimson’s Lalwani said such a united effort, while pro forma, would show the Quad is seen now as an important multilateral group, not just some side project.
“The Quad’s trajectory is clearly upward,” he said.
That portends potential trouble with China, and Beijing has already made its displeasure with the group’s rise known.
Last October, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “What [the Quad] pursues is to trumpet the Cold War mentality and to stir up confrontation among different groups and blocs and to stoke geopolitical competition.” That’s more heated rhetoric than he used back in 2018, when he called the concept of the Quad “sea foam” because it would soon dissipate.
But the Biden administration isn’t cowed and has stated emphatically that the Quad is a central part of its plans. The group is “fundamental, a foundation upon which to build substantial American policy in the Indo-Pacific region,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said during a January event at the US Institute of Peace.
That’s the right outlook, most experts told me. “If China was behaving fine, you wouldn’t see these countries engage on these things,” said Madan.
After Friday’s meeting, then, it’s likely the Quad will have officially moved from a fringe idea into a centerpiece of four nations’ designs for the region, one that could bring China to heel.
“The goal here is basically to introduce the Quad as a new feature of regular diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific,” a senior administration official told Reuters this week.
Donald Trump Jr. on Thursday fired off a tweet calling for his dad to wage “total war over the election” — while parroting the same allegations of voter fraud that his father has used to explain away his dwindling hopes of staying in the White House.
Twitter quickly hid the message from view for spreading false information about the election.
Trump Jr., who has a long history of using Twitter to fuel conspiracy theories, hit the send button amid a flurry of lawsuits filed by his father’s campaign to turn the election — including one in Pennsylvania that sought to stop vote-counting.
“The best thing for America’s future is for @realDonaldTrump to go to total war over this election to expose all of the fraud, cheating, dead/no longer in state voters, that has been going on for far too long,” Trump Jr. wrote, repeating several conspiracy theories about the election and seemingly calling for Americans to go to war with one another.
“It’s time to clean up this mess & stop looking like a banana republic!” he added.
Twitter flagged the tweet minutes after it was posted for violating its “Civic integrity policy.”
A number of key battleground states have not been called since the 2020 presidential election wrapped Tuesday night, including Pennsylvania and Georgia, which Trump needs to carry to get to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
His campaign has filed a number of lawsuits in both states, including one in Chatham County, Georgia, which was tossed by a judge Thursday.
Satellite imagery of the Russian naval base at Tartus in Syria shows pens used to keep marine mammals.
The marine mammals are likely military dolphins sent by Russia to guard its fleet in Syria.
Russia’s marine mammal arsenal includes beluga whales, one of which was sighted hanging around Norway last year.
Satellite photos of a Russian naval base in Syria depict pens typically used to hold trained marine mammals. The pens, which made a brief appearance at the Tartus naval base from September to December 2018, likely contained military dolphins. Both the U.S. and Russia use trained dolphins to detect mines and enemy saboteurs—and Iran might, too.READ THISDoes Iran Have Secret Armed Dolphin Assassins?
Russian military intervention in Syria is opposed by a number of sides in the conflict. Enemies of the Assad regime have launched several attacks against Moscow’s military forces, including a January 2018 mass drone strike against Tartus and Russia’s Hmeimim air base. Russia was likely concerned that enemy divers might attack warships in port and deployed dolphins as a response.
The legendary Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS), which tracks issues related to technology and global security, has issued a terrifying warning: We are less than two minutes to midnight on the Doomsday clock. It’s very bad news, representing “the most dangerous situation that humanity has ever faced.”
What makes this moment so perilous? The scientists’ statement includes warnings over the cyber-weaponization of information, the spread of artificial intelligence (AI) in making military decisions, the destruction of treaties meant to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, the abandonment of global agreements to limit climate chaos, the spread of genetic engineering and synthetic biology technologies, and more. It does not account for the escalated likelihood of atomic reactor disasters, but based on at least one BAS publication, it should.
Since 1947, this prestigious band of elite scientists and global thinkers has been putting out a “clock” meant to time the peril of a global apocalypse. First issued at the dawn of the Cold War, it has mostly focused on the dangers of atomic warfare. Its countdown to Armageddon has been set as far away as 17 minutes from midnight, a hypothetical time of human extinction. That relatively optimistic assessment came in 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the definitive end of the Cold War.
In 2018, the BAS set it at two minutes, the closest to catastrophe it had ever been. They repeated that estimate in 2019. But this year’s announcement has taken us inside the two-minute warning with a hair-raising litany of likely lethal catastrophes set to occur within 100 theoretical seconds.
Donald Trump is mentioned only once by name, in conjunction with his decision to trash the Paris Accords on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. The scientists urge “whoever wins the 2020 election” to reinstate the U.S. commitment limiting carbon and other climate-destroying emissions. The BAS also cites Brazilian dictator Jair Bolsonaro for his decision to allow the destruction of the Amazon, with huge impacts on climate.
The BAS strives to maintain a non-partisan image. But Trump’s presence in the White House clearly hangs over any assessment of humankind’s survivability. The specter of his finger on the nuclear, ecological and financial buttons for the next four years hangs over humankind like a pall but goes otherwise unmentioned in this Doomsday assessment.
Also unmentioned is the question of more than 450 atomic power reactors worldwide. A small but vocal outlier coterie has argued that nuclear energy combats global warming by emitting less carbon that coal burners. But the Bulletin recently enshrined a major assessment by the esteemed Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, warning that commercial reactors pose a serious threat to human survival on this planet.
Published in August 2019, “The false promise of nuclear power in an age of climate change” argues that the 450 atomic reactors now deteriorating worldwide pose an existential threat to our survival. Writing with Professor Naomi Oreskes, Lifton warns that atomic energy “is expensive and poses grave dangers to our physical and psychological well-being.” Citing costs of nuclear juice at $100 per megawatt-hour versus $50 for solar and $30-40 for onshore wind, the authors say that the industry suffers from a “negative learning curve,” driving nuke costs constantly higher while those for renewables head consistently down.
Citing the unsolved problem of radioactive waste management, the BAS article warns of the ongoing impacts of major disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl (and potentially more to come), whose fallout kills humans and does untold damage to the global ecology. Lipton and Oreskes say we need to free ourselves “from the false hope that a technology designed for ultimate destruction” can lead to our salvation. They favor making “renewable energies integral to the American way of life.”
By attacking both science and the fabric of international peace accords, some global leaders have created “a situation that will, if unaddressed, lead to catastrophe, sooner rather than later.”
That situation includes AI and hypersonic warfare, both escalating “at a frenzied pace.” Now used in ultra-fast attacks, AI is dangerously vulnerable to “hacking and manipulation” while making “kill decisions without human supervision.” In nuclear command and control systems, the BAS warns, research and experience have demonstrated the vulnerability of these systems to “hacking and manipulation.”
This is an absolutely terrifying brew. The spread of disinformation, the contempt for science and expert opinion, the undermining of global agreements on arms control, and climate change are all deadly. Add in the new world of AI and hyper-sonic warfare, then pile on autocrats like Trump and Bolsonaro, and finish with the certainty of more disasters from 450 crumbling, obsolete atomic reactors.
All in all, it’s small wonder the Bulletin has taken us past the two-minute warning. It will clearly take every ounce of our activist strength to save our species from the final
intraceable, ruthless proxies spreading chaos on multiple continents. Costly miscalculations. And thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — killed in a conflict that would dwarf the war in Iraq.
Welcome to the US-Iran war, which has the potential to be one of the worst conflicts in history.
The Thursday night killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who led Iranian covert operations and intelligence and was one of the country’s most senior leaders, brought Washington and Tehran closer to fighting that war. Iran has every incentive to retaliate, experts says, using its proxies to target US commercial interests in the Middle East, American allies, or even American troops and diplomats hunkered down in regional bases and embassies.
It’s partly why the Eurasia Group, a prominent international consulting firm, now puts the chance of “a limited or major military confrontation” at 40 percent.
But the seeds of conflict weren’t planted with Thursday’s airstrikes alone. Washington and Tehran have remained locked in a months-long standoff that only continues to escalate. The US imposed crushing sanctions on Iran’s economy over its support for terrorism and its growing missile program, among other things, after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal last year; Iran has fought back by violating parts of the nuclear agreement, bombing oil tankers, and downing an American military drone.
The crisis has become more acute over the past week. An Iranian-backed militia killed an American contractor while wounding others in rocket attacks, leading the Trump administration to order retaliatory strikes on five targets in Iraq and Syria that killed 25 of the militia’s fighters. In protest, the militia — Ketaib Hezbollah — organized a rally outside the US embassy in Baghdad where some got inside the compound and set parts of it ablaze.
That led Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to tell reporters on Thursday that “if we get word of attacks, we will take pre-emptive action as well to protect American forces, protect American lives,” adding “the game has changed.” The US killed Soleimani hours after that statement, underscoring that change.
Importantly, experts note that neither country wants a full-blown conflict, with President Donald Trump saying he prefers “peace” when it comes to Iran. But the possibility of war breaking out anyway shouldn’t be discounted, especially now that Iran’s leadership has sworn to avenge Soleimani. “The great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted Friday morning.
The flag of General Soleimani in defense of the country’s territorial integrity and the fight against terrorism and extremism in the region will be raised, and the path of resistance to US excesses will continue. The great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime.
Which means US-Iran relations teeter on a knife edge, and it won’t take much more to knock them off. So to understand just how bad the situation could get, I asked eight current and former White House, Pentagon, and intelligence officials, as well as Middle East experts, last July about how a war between the US and Iran might play out.
The bottom line: It would be hell on earth.
“This would be a violent convulsion similar to chaos of the Arab Spring inflicted on the region for years,” said Ilan Goldenberg, the Defense Department’s Iran team chief from 2009 to 2012, with the potential for it to get “so much worse than Iraq.”
How the US-Iran war starts
US-imposed sanctions have tanked Iran’s economy, and Tehran desperately wants them lifted. But with few options to compel the Trump administration to change course, Iranian leaders may choose a more violent tactic to make their point, especially after Soleimani’s death.
Iranian forces could bomb an American oil tanker traveling through the Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway for the global energy trade aggressively patrolled by Tehran’s forces, causing loss of life or a catastrophic oil spill. The country’s skillful hackers could launch a major cyberattack on regional allies like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates.
That last option is particularly likely, experts say. After all, Iran bombed US Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 and killed more than 600 US troops during the Iraq War. Taking this step may seem extreme, but “Iran could convince itself that it could do this,” Goldenberg, now at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, told me.
At that point, it’d be nearly impossible for the Trump administration not to respond in kind. The recommendations given to the president would correspond to whatever action Iran took.
If Tehran destroyed an oil tanker, killing people and causing an oil spill, the US might destroy some of Iran’s ships. If Iran took out another US military drone, the US might take out some of Iran’s air defenses. And if Iranian-backed militants killed Americans in Iraq, then US troops stationed there could retaliate, killing militia fighters and targeting their bases of operation in return. The US could even bomb certain training grounds inside Iran or kill high-level officials.
It’s at this point that both sides would need to communicate their red lines to each other and how not to cross them. The problem is there are no direct channels between the two countries and they don’t particularly trust each other. So the situation could easily spiral out of control.
Messaging “is often more important than physical action,” Jasmine El-Gamal, formerly a Middle East adviser at the Pentagon, told me. “Action without corresponding messaging, public or private, could most certainly lead to escalation because the other side is free to interpret the action as they wish.”
Which means the initial tit-for-tat would serve as the precursor to much more bloodshed.
“What are we going to be wrong about?”
You may have heard the phrase “the fog of war.” It refers to how hard it is for opposing sides to know what’s going on in the heat of battle. It’s particularly difficult when they don’t talk to one another, as is the case with the US and Iran.
Which means that the way the US and Iran interpret each other’s next moves would mainly come down to guesswork.
Eric Brewer, who spent years in the intelligence community before joining Trump’s National Security Council to work on Iran, told me that’s when the Pentagon and other parts of the government rely heavily on their best-laid plans.
The problem, he noted, is that wars rarely play out as even the smartest officials think they will. A guiding question for him, then, is “what are we going to be wrong about?”
Here’s one scenario in which the US might get something wrong — and open up the door to chaos: After America launches its first set of retaliatory strikes, Iran decides to scatter its missiles to different parts of the country.
Now the Trump administration has to figure out why Iran did that. Some people in the administration might think it’s because Tehran plans to attack US embassies, troops, or allies in the region and is moving its missiles into position to do so. Others might believe that it was merely for defensive reasons, with Iran essentially trying to protect its missile arsenal from being taken out by future US strikes.
Without a clear answer, which interpretation wins out comes down to which camp in the Trump administration is the most persuasive. And if the camp that believes Iran is about to launch missile strikes wins, they could convince the president to take preemptive action against Iran.
That could be a good thing if they were right; after all, they’d have made sure Iran couldn’t carry out those planned attacks. But what if they were wrong? What if the other camp guessed correctly that Iran was merely moving its missiles around because it was scared the US would strike once more? In that case, the US would have bombed Iran again, this time for essentially no reason — thus looking like the aggressor.
That could cause Iran to retaliate with a bigger attack, setting off a spiral that could end in full-scale war.
Tehran could just as easily read that buildup as preparation for a US invasion. If that’s the case, Iranian forces could choose to strike first in an effort to complicate the perceived incursion.
Of course, cooler heads could prevail in those moments. But experts say the political pressures on both Washington and Tehran not to be attacked first — and not to be embarrassed or look weak — might be too strong for the countries’ leaders to ignore.
“Unintended civilian casualties or other collateral damage is always possible, and it is not clear that this administration — or any administration — understands what Iran’s own red lines are,” El-Gamal, now at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, told me. “As such, the greatest risk of a full-blown war comes from one side miscalculating the other’s tolerance” for conflict.
If that proves true, and the US and Iran officially escalate their fighting to more than a few one-off attacks, it’s war.
What the US-Iran war might look like
At this point, it’s hard to be very precise about a hypothetical full-blown conflict. We know it would feature a series of moves and countermoves, we know it’d be very messy and confusing, and we know it’d be extremely deadly.
But unlike with the path to war, it’s less useful to offer a play-by-play of what could happen. So with that in mind, it’s better to look at what the US and Iranian war plans would likely be — to better understand the devastation each could exact.
How the US might try to win the war
The US strategy would almost certainly involve using overwhelming air and naval power to beat Iran into submission early on. “You don’t poke the beehive, you take the whole thing down,” Goldenberg said.
The US military would bomb Iranian ships, parked warplanes, missile sites, nuclear facilities, and training grounds, as well as launch cyberattacks on much of the country’s military infrastructure. The goal would be to degrade Iran’s conventional forces within the first few days and weeks, making it even harder for Tehran to resist American strength.
That plan definitely makes sense as an opening salvo, experts say, but it will come nowhere close to winning the war.
“It’s very unlikely that the Iranians would capitulate,” Michael Hanna, a Middle East expert at the Century Foundation in New York, told me. “It’s almost impossible to imagine that a massive air campaign will produce the desired result. It’s only going to produce escalation, not surrender.”
It won’t help that a sustained barrage of airstrikes will likely lead to thousands of Iranians dead, among them innocent civilians. That, among other things, could galvanize Iranian society against the US and put it firmly behind the regime, even though it has in many ways treated the population horribly over decades in power.
There’s another risk: A 2002 war game showed that Iran could sink an American ship and kill US sailors, even though the US Navy is far more powerful. If the Islamic Republic’s forces succeeded in doing that, it could provide a searing image that could serve as a propaganda coup for the Iranians. Washington won’t garner the same amount of enthusiasm for destroying Iranian warships — that’s what’s supposed to happen.
Trump has already signaled he doesn’t want to send ground troops into Iran or even spend a long time fighting the country. That tracks with his own inclinations to keep the US out of foreign wars, particularly in the Middle East. But with hawkish aides at his side, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, there’s a chance they could convince him not to look weak and to go all-in and grasp victory.
But the options facing the president at that point will be extremely problematic, experts say.
The riskiest one — by far — would be to invade Iran. The logistics alone boggle the mind, and any attempt to try it would be seen from miles away. “There’s no surprise invasion of Iran,” Brewer, who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, told me.
The geography is also treacherous. It has small mountain ranges along some of its borders. Entering from the Afghanistan side in the east would mean traversing two deserts. Trying to get in from the west could also prove difficult even with Turkey — a NATO ally — as a bordering nation. After all, Ankara wouldn’t let the US use Turkey to invade Iraq, and its relations with Washington have only soured since.
The US could try to enter Iran the way Saddam Hussein did during the Iran-Iraq war, near a water pass bordering Iran’s southwest. But it’s swampy — the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet there — and relatively easy to protect. Plus, an invading force would run up against the Zagros Mountains after passing through, just like Saddam’s forces did.
It’s for these reasons that the private intelligence firm Stratfor called Iran a “fortress” back in 2011. If Trump chose to launch an incursion, he’d likely need around 1.6 million troops to take control of the capital and country, a force so big it would overwhelm America’s ability to host them in regional bases. By contrast, America never had more than 180,000 service members in Iraq.
And there’s the human cost. A US-Iran war would likely lead to thousands or hundreds of thousands of dead. Trying to forcibly remove the country’s leadership, experts say, might drive that total into the millions.
That helps explain why nations in the region hope they won’t see a fight. Goldenberg, who traveled recently to meet with officials in the Gulf, said that none of them wanted a US-Iran war. European nations will also worry greatly about millions of refugees streaming into the continent, which would put immense pressure on governments already dealing with the fallout of the Syrian refugee crisis. Israel also would worry about Iranian proxies targeting it (more on that below).
Meanwhile, countries like Russia and China — both friendly to Iran — would try to curtail the fighting and exploit it at the same time, the Century Foundation’s Hanna told me. China depends heavily on its goods traveling through the Strait of Hormuz, so it would probably call for calm and for Tehran not to close down the waterway. Russia would likely demand restraint as well, but use the opportunity to solidify its ties with the Islamic Republic.
And since both countries have veto power on the UN Security Council, they could ruin any political legitimacy for the war that the US may aim to gain through that body.
The hope for the Trump administration would therefore be that the conflict ends soon after the opening salvos begin. If it doesn’t, and Iran resists, all that’d really be left are a slew of bad options to make a horrid situation much, much worse.
How Iran might try to win the war
Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart left his post as the No. 2 at US Cyber Command in 2019, ending a decorated four-decade career. Toward the end of it, he spent his time at the forefront of the military intelligence and cybersecurity communities.
If anyone has the most up-to-date information on how Iran may fight the US, then, it’s Stewart.
“The Iranian strategy would be to avoid, where possible, direct conventional force-on-force operations,” he wrote for the Cipher Brief on July 2, 2019. “They would attempt to impose cost on a global scale, striking at US interests through cyber operations and targeted terrorism with the intent of expanding the conflict, while encouraging the international community to restrain America’s actions.”
In other words, Tehran can’t match Washington’s firepower. But it can spread chaos in the Middle East and around the world, hoping that a war-weary US public, an intervention-skeptical president, and an angered international community cause America to stand down.
That may seem like a huge task — and it is — but experts believe the Islamic Republic has the capability, knowhow, and will to pull off such an ambitious campaign. “The Iranians can escalate the situation in a lot of different ways and in a lot of different places,” Hanna told me. “They have the capacity to do a lot of damage.”
Take what it could do in the Middle East. Iran’s vast network of proxies and elite units — like Soleimani’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — could be activated to kill American troops, diplomats, and citizens throughout the region. US troops in Syria are poorly defended and have little support, making them easy targets, experts say. America also has thousands of civilians, troops, and contractors in Iraq, many of whom work in areas near where Iranian militias operate within the country.
US allies would also be prime targets. Hezbollah, an Iran-backed terrorist group in Lebanon, might attack Israel with rockets and start its own brutal fight. We’ve heard this story before: In 2006, they battled in a month-long war where the militant group fired more than 4,000 rockets into Israel, and Israeli forces fired around 7,000 bombs and missiles into Lebanon.
About 160 Israelis troops and civilians died, according to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and about 1,100 Lebanese — most of them civilians — perished, per Human Rights Watch, a US-headquartered advocacy organization. It also reports about 4,400 Lebanese were injured, and around 1 million people were displaced.
But that’s not all. Iran could encourage terrorist organizations or other proxies to strike inside Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf nations. Last year, it planned and executed drone strikes on two major Saudi oil facilities deep inside the kingdom, convulsing world markets. Its support for Houthis rebels in Yemen would mostly certainly increase, offering them more weapons and funds to attack Saudi Arabia’s airports, military bases, and energy plants.
Experts note that the Islamic Republic likely has sleeper cells in Europe and Latin America, and they could resurface in dramatic and violent ways. In 1994, for example, Iranian-linked terrorists bombed the hub of the Jewish community in Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and injuring roughly 300 more.
That remains the largest terrorist attack in Latin America’s history, and the possibility for an even bigger one exists. In 2018, Argentina arrested two men suspected of having ties with Hezbollah.
But Chris Musselman, formerly the National Security Council’s counterterrorism director under Trump, told me the US and its allies may have the most trouble containing the proxy swarm in Western Africa.
“We could see a conflict that spread quickly to places the US may not be able to protect people, and it’s a fight that we are grossly unprepared for,” he said, adding that there’s a strong Hezbollah presence in the region and American embassy security there isn’t great. Making matters worse, he continued, the US isn’t particularly good at collecting intelligence there, meaning some militants could operate relatively under the radar.
“This isn’t really a law enforcement function that US can take on a global scale,” he said. It would require that countries unwittingly hosting proxies to lead on defeating the Iranian-linked fighters, with US support when needed.
The chaos would also extend into the cyber realm. Iran is a major threat to the US in cyberspace. Starting in 2011, Iran attacked more than 40 American banks, including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America. The attack made it so the banks had trouble serving its customers and customers had trouble using the bank’s services.
In 2012, Iran released malware into the networks of Saudi Aramco, a major oil company, which erased documents, emails, and other files on around 75 percent of the company’s computers — replacing them with an image of a burning American flag.
In the middle of a war, one could imagine Tehran’s hackers wreaking even more havoc.
“I would expect them to have begun selected targeting through socially-engineered phishing activities focused on the oil and gas sector, the financial sector and the electric power grid in that order,” Stewart wrote. “There may be instances now where they already have some persistent access. If they do, I expect they would use it, or risk losing the access and employ that capability early in the escalation of the crisis.”
Recent reports indicate that Iranian cyberwarriors have stepped up their online operations, with a particular emphasis on preparing to attack US firms. Among other moves, they’re aiming to trick employees at major businesses to hand over passwords and other vital information, giving them greater access to a firm’s networks.
“When you combine this increase with past destructive attacks launched by Iranian-linked actors, we’re concerned enough about the potential for new destructive attacks to continue sounding the alarm,” Christopher Krebs, a top cybersecurity official at the Department of Homeland Security, told Foreign Policy last July.
All of this — proxies striking around the world, cyberattacks on enterprise — would happen while Iran continued to resist conventional American forces.
In the Strait of Hormuz, for instance, Iranian sailors could use speedboats to place bombs on oil tankers or place mines in the water to destroy US warships. The Islamic Republic’s submarines would also play a huge part in trying to sink an American vessel. And the nation’s anti-ship missiles and drones could prove constant and deadly nuisances.
Should US troops try to enter Iranian territory on land, Iranian ground forces would also push back on them fiercely using insurgent-like tactics while the US painfully marches toward Tehran.
Put together, Brewer notes succinctly, a US-Iran war would be “a nasty, brutal fight.”
Aftermath: “The worst-case scenarios here are quite serious”
Imagine, as we already have, that the earlier stages of strife escalate to a major war. That’s already bad enough. But assume for a moment not only that the fighting takes place, but that the US does the unlikely and near impossible: It invades and overthrows the Iranian regime (which Trump’s former National Security Adviser John Bolton, at least, has openly called for in the past).
If that happens, it’s worth keeping two things in mind.
First, experts say upward of a million people — troops from both sides as well as Iranian men, women, and children, and American diplomats and contractors — likely will have died by that point. Cities will burn and smolder. Those who survived the conflict will mainly live in a state of economic devastation for years and some, perhaps, will pick up arms and form insurgent groups to fight the invading US force.
Second, power abhors a vacuum. With no entrenched regime in place, multiple authority figures from Iran’s clerical and military circles, among others, will jockey for control. Those sides could split into violent factions, initiating a civil war that would bring more carnage to the country. Millions more refugees might flock out of the country, overwhelming already taxed nations nearby, and ungoverned pockets will give terrorist groups new safe havens from which to operate.
Iran would be on the verge of being a failed state, if it wasn’t already by that point, and the US would be the main reason why. To turn the tide, America may feel compelled to help rebuild the country at the cost of billions of dollars, years of effort, and likely more dead. It could also choose to withdraw, leaving behind a gaping wound in the center of the Middle East.
In some ways, then, what comes after the war could be worse than the war itself. It should therefore not be lost on anyone: A US-Iran war would be a bloody hell during and after the fighting. It’s a good thing neither Trump nor Iran’s leadership currently wants a conflict. But if they change their minds, only carnage follows.
“The worst-case scenarios here are quite serious,” Hanna told me.
Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old from Sweden, has become the face of climate-change activism.
Thunberg launched the Fridays For Future movement — or School Strike for Climate — last year. It encourages students to skip school to demand action on climate change from their governments.
The teenager was nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, but the award went to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who brokered his nation’s peace with the neighboring Eritrea.
While Thunberg has remained silent about the snub so far, the Nobel Committee’s selection has sparked an outcry on social media.
One peace expert told The Washington Post that Thunberg was passed over because there “isn’t scientific consensus that there’s a relationship between climate change — or resource scarcity, more broadly — and armed conflict.”
On Friday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg had been a favorite for the prestigious award. Had she won, Thunberg would have become the youngest person ever to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Instead, the Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai remains the youngest-ever Nobel laureate, having won the award in 2014 when she was 17 years old.
Thunberg launched the Fridays For Future movement — or School Strike for Climate — last year. It encourages students to skip school to demand action on climate change from their governments. The movement earned her a nomination for this year’s peace prize in March.
Instead of the teenager, however, the Nobel Committee said it selected Ahmed for his “efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation and for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”
The prime minister worked out the principles for a peace agreement to end the long stalemate between the two countries, the committee added.
Other frontrunners included New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for her decisive response to the Christchurch mass shootings in March and the Brazilian indigenous chief Raoni Metuktire for his efforts to protect the Amazon.
Thunberg’s fans are not happy
Thunberg, who is fairly communicative on Twitter and Instagram, has been unusually silent since the announcement. (Granted, that might have something to do with the fact that she’s in Denver preparing for this week’s Fridays For Future climate strike.)
Thunberg entered the global spotlight over the past year as the leader of a youth movement that’s pushing governments and corporations to address the climate crisis. She launched Fridays For Future when she was in ninth grade by staging a strike for two weeks outside the Swedish parliament. Now Thunberg spends every Friday on strike.
In March, more than 1 million young people in 123 countries skipped school and took to the streets to support Thunberg’s cause. Six months later, on September 20, she was joined by an estimated 4 million people in 161 countries during the largest climate-change demonstration in history.
Some of the teenager’s most vocal critics, including the conservative host Piers Morgan of “Good Morning Britain,” jumped in to fill Thunberg’s silence with remarks of their own about the Nobel Committee’s decision.
“How DARE they actually give it to someone who forged peace?!!!!” he tweeted.
Morgan was poking fun at Thunberg’s iconic speech at the United Nations General Assembly last month, in which she chastised world leaders who she said were looking to her for hope regarding climate change. “How dare you,” Thunburg thundered. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
But many of Thunberg’s fans also took to social media to express their disappointment about the committee’s decision.
Since Thunberg was nominated for the Nobel prize in March, her followers and fan base have continued to grow. Some of those supporters, while disappointed by her snub, were quick to mention the teenager’s impact on the climate debate.
Even though @GretaThunberg didn’t win the peace prize this time round, the awareness and sense of responsibility she has inspired around the world is an award far greater! #Thankyougreta the fight has only just begun though! Let’s take the powers to school about #ClimateChange
Norwegian Socialist MP Freddy André Øvstegård, who was among those who nominated Thunberg for the award, told The Guardian that she “has launched a mass movement which I see as a major contribution to peace.”
“We have proposed Greta Thunberg because if we do nothing to halt climate change, it will be the cause of wars, conflict, and refugees,” he said.
One peace expert told The Washington Post, however, that it was not entirely a surprise the Nobel Committee passed over Thunberg in favor of Ahmed, despite the teenager’s overwhelming popularity.
The head of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, Henrik Urdal, told The Post that he left Thunberg off the Nobel Peace Prize shortlist he suggested to the prize committee because there “isn’t scientific consensus that there is a linear relationship between climate change — or resource scarcity, more broadly — and armed conflict.”
But that doesn’t mean climate change isn’t linked to peace. The US Pentagon classifies climate change as a “threat multiplier,” meaning it can worsen other sources of instability and conflict. Heat waves, hurricanes, and other climate-change-related consequences like sea-level rise can exacerbate competition for natural resources and ethnic tensions.
Thunberg’s possible prize would not have been the first awarded for work that increases climate-change awareness — 12 years ago, former US Vice President Al Gore and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change took home the honors.
But Urdal added that such a pick was less likely today because the Nobel Committee had been sticking far more closely to the vision of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish businessman who founded the awards.
According to Nobel, the Nobel laureate needed to be a figure who had advanced the “abolition or reduction of standing armies.”
Unfortunately for Thunberg and her supporters, her climate activism apparently didn’t fit that bill.
The conditions that incubated Apollo just aren’t around anymore.
On Dec. 13, 1972, scientist-astronaut Harrison Schmitt is photographed standing next to a huge boulder during the final Apollo moon-landing mission, Apollo 17. This mosaic is made from two photos shot by fellow Apollo 17 moonwalker Eugene Cernan.
Humanity hasn’t been back to Earth’s nearest neighbor since (though many of our robotic probes have). NASA has mounted multiple crewed moon projects since Apollo, including the ambitious Constellation Program in the mid-2000s, but none of them have gone the distance.
So what was different about Apollo? It was incubated in a very particular environment, experts say — the Cold War space race with the Soviet Union.
“This was war by another means — it really was,” Roger Launius, who served as NASA’s chief historian from 1990 to 2002 and wrote the recently published book “Apollo’s Legacy” (Smithsonian Books, 2019), told Space.com. “And we have not had that since.”
Apollo 11 Moon Landing Reconstructed Using Orbiter Imagery
The Soviet Union fired the first few salvos in this proxy war. The nation launched the first-ever satellite, Sputnik 1, in October 1957 and put the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin, in April 1961. These shows of technological might worried U.S. officials, who wanted a big win of their own. And they believed putting the first boots on the moon would do the trick.
This wasn’t viewed as empty flexing. The United States wanted, among other things, to show the world that the future lay with its political and economic systems, not those of its communist rival.
“The Apollo days were not, fundamentally, about going to the moon,” John Logsdon, a professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C., told Space.com. “They were about demonstrating American global leadership in a zero-sum Cold War competition with the Soviet Union.”
Watch NASA’s Artemis-1 Mission Launch to Moon in New Animation
So NASA got the resources it needed to pull off its moon shot. And those resources were immense — about $25.8 billion for Apollo from 1960 through 1973, or nearly $264 billion in today’s dollars. During the mid-1960s, NASA got about 4.5% of the federal budget — 10 times greater than its current share.
The stakes haven’t been nearly as high since the end of the Cold War, so subsequent moon projects haven’t enjoyed such sustained support. (They likely also suffered from some been-there-done-that sentiment.) For example, the Constellation Program, which took shape under President George W. Bush, was canceled in 2010 by President Barack Obama.
Obama directed NASA to instead send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid. But President Donald Trump nixed that plan in 2017, putting the agency back on course for the moon.
Watch Apollo 11’s Moon Landing in Amazing Simulation
NASA initially targeted 2028 for the first crewed lunar landing since the Apollo days. But this past March, Vice President Mike Pence instructed NASA to get it done by 2024.
The accelerated timeline might actually make this newest moon shot more achievable, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said, citing the “political risk” that doomed Constellation and other programs.
Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins Talk With Trump For Apollo 50th Anniversary
Political risk exists “because priorities change, budgets change, administrations change, Congresses change,” Bridenstine said May 14 in a town-hall address to NASA employees.
“So, how do we retire as much political risk as possible?” he added. “We accelerate the program. Basically, the shorter the program is, the less time it takes, the less political risk we endure. In other words, we can accomplish the end state.”
The 2024 landing is part of a program called Artemis, which aims to build up a long-term, sustainable human presence at and around the moon. The main goal is to lay the foundation for crewed trips to the ultimate human-spaceflight destination: Mars. NASA aims to put boots on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s.
An F/A-18 Super Hornet gets ready to fly off the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Gulf of Alaska.
Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media
The U.S. Navy is looking north.
As climate change melts ice that has long blocked the region off from transit and industry, the military is figuring out how to expand its presence in the waters of the high north, primarily off the coast of Alaska.
Driving the push is that much of the commercial activity and development interest in the region is coming from nations that the Pentagon considers rivals, such as Russia and China.
The Navy’s presence in Alaska has waxed and waned over the years. The state has abundant Army and Air Force assets, with the Coast Guard spread throughout. The Navy runs submarine exercises beneath the sea ice off Alaska’s northern coast.
But until last year, no U.S. aircraft carrier had ventured above the Arctic Circle in almost three decades. The USS Harry S. Truman took part in naval exercises in the Norwegian Sea last October, the first such vessel to sail that far north since 1991.
And for the first time in a decade, this May, an aircraft carrier strike group — led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt — sailed to Alaska as part of Northern Edge, a biennial large-scale military exercise that brings together personnel from all the military branches — airmen, Marines, soldiers, seamen and Coast Guardsman. The Navy always participates, but this year, it was out in force.
Lt. Cmdr. Alex Diaz oversees traffic on the USS Theodore Roosevelt flight deck.
Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media
Rear Adm. Daniel Dwyer commands the nine ships in the Roosevelt strike group. Speaking on an observation deck several stories above the flight deck, he said climate change is adding a new urgency to training like this one as marine activity increases in Arctic waters.
“You see the shrinking of the polar ice cap, opening of sea lanes, more traffic through those areas,” Dwyer said. “It’s the Navy’s responsibility to protect America through those approaches.”
The Defense Department views the threat of military conflict in the Arctic as low, but it is alarmed by increasing activity in the region from Russia and China. A 2018 reportby the Government Accountability Office on the Navy’s role in the Arctic notes that abundant natural resources like gas, minerals and fish stocks are becoming more accessible as the polar ice cap melts, bringing “competing sovereignty claims.”
Defending U.S. interests in the Arctic
As the Roosevelt cruised through the Gulf of Alaska, F/A-18 Super Hornets took off and landed at a brisk clip. Each takeoff is a full-body experience for those on deck, shaking everything from one’s shoes to teeth. Planes are launched by a steam catapult system powered by the ship’s nuclear reactors.
Some of the jets flew more than 100 miles toward mainland Alaska and continued on past mountain ranges to sync up with Air Force and Marine Corps counterparts operating in the airspace around Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. Then they returned to the Roosevelt. The whole trip lasts about four hours.
For the first time in a decade, an aircraft carrier strike group — led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt — sailed to Alaska as part of Northern Edge, a biennial large-scale military exercise.
Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media
To land, the Super Hornets suddenly dropped out of the sky dangling a hook that snagged at wires bringing them from full speed to full stop in 183 feet. It looked less like a car braking and more like a roller coaster slamming still to give riders one last jolt.
“We are catching anywhere from six to 25 aircraft on this recovery,” crackled a voice over a loudspeaker on the deck. “I’m not sure yet [how many]. If they show up on the ball, we’re gonna catch ’em.”
The deck was coordinated chaos, with crew members and aircraft rotating through intricate maneuvers like a baroque ballet, billows of steam from the launch equipment periodically billowing past.
The deck crews are referred to as “skittles” because they wear uniforms that are color-coordinated to match their jobs. Much like the candy, most of the rainbow is represented. Greens take care of takeoffs and landings. Reds handle ordnance. Purples deal with fuel and are referred to as “grapes.”
The Navy says that given what is expected of it in the region, crews are trained and equipped to carry out their missions as well as any other nation’s navy.
“Regardless of the conditions: day, night, good weather, bad weather, flat seas, heavy seas, it’s the same procedure every time,” Dwyer said of the jets taking off below just as a helicopter set down on the flight deck.
A shifting focus to the “high north”
Speaking at this year’s Coast Guard Academy commencement, national security adviser John Bolton said the military will play a part “reasserting” American influence over the Arctic.
“We want the high north to be a region of low tension, where no country seeks to coerce others through military buildup or economic exploitation,” Bolton told graduates.
Forecasters anticipate diminishing ice will reliably open up northern sea lanes, thus cutting down the time and cost moving freight from Asia to Europe but causing a rise in vessel traffic.
The military is candid that the warming climate is opening up transit routes that sea ice has long locked in. Right now, though, the U.S. naval presence is minimal.
F/A-18 Super Hornet is launched by a steam-powered catapult off the USS Theodore Roosevelt during naval exercises in the Gulf of Alaska.
Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media
“If you’re gonna be a neighbor, you have to be in the neighborhood,” said Vice Adm. John Alexander, commander of the Navy’s 3rd Fleet, which is responsible for the Northern Pacific, including the Bering Sea and Alaskan Arctic.
“We’re going to have to ensure that there’s free and open transit of those waters,” Alexander said.
But the Navy faces major impediments to expanding its presence in a maritime environment as harsh as the Arctic. According to the GAO report, most of the Navy’s surface ships aren’t “designed to operate in icy water.”
The authors note that Navy officials have stated that “contractor construction yards currently lack expertise in the design for construction of winterized, ice-capable surface combatant and amphibious warfare ships.”
After years of study, the Defense Department has yet to pick a location and design for a strategic port in the vicinity of the Arctic that can permanently accommodate a strong Navy presence.
And even if the military can operate in the Arctic, it still has to get there. For now, the region’s waters are solidly frozen over for much of the year. According to the Coast Guard, Russia has more than 40 icebreakers, including three new gargantuan nuclear-powered vessels designed to ply sea lanes along the northern sea route. The U.S. military, by contrast, has just two working icebreakers.
This story comes from American Homefront, a military and veterans reporting project from NPR and member stations.