The Complex

U.S. Spooked by China's Nuke Bomber, Attack Drone Projects

In June, the Chinese military received the first of its new, long-range bombers, the Hongzha-6K. It's an upgraded model of the twin-engine plane the Chinese have used for decades, but has some significant new bells and whistles - most notably the likely ability to carry cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads.

The bomber is among the ground likely to be covered at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday as members of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission testify about their annual report. It warns that the Chinese are "rapidly expanding and diversifying" their ability to strike U.S. bases, ships and aircraft throughout to the Pacific, including those in places like Guam that were previously out of reach. The report's release comes as the U.S. simultaneously increases the frequency with which it interacts with the Chinese military, and blasts the country for hacking into U.S. computer networks to steal secrets.

The commission's report strikes a balance between sounding the alarm on China's ambitions and recommending continued cooperation on issues of common interest. But it warns about China's rise in stark terms, saying the country has become increasingly aggressive in the way it handles long-standing issues with the Philippines, Japan and other nations.

"Although sovereignty disputes in the East and South China Seas are not new, China's growing diplomatic, economic, and military clout is improving China's ability to assert its interests," it says. "It is increasingly clear that China does not intend to resolve the disputes through multilateral negotiations or the application of international laws and adjudicative processes but instead will use its growing power in support of coercive tactics that pressure its neighbors to concede to China's claims."

The commission highlighted the development of China's new attack drone as another example of the country's military development. First displayed at an air show in 2012 (pictured above), their Yi Long unmanned aerial vehicle closely resembles the MQ-9 Reaper, which can be armed with Hellfire missiles, bombs and other weapons.

The commission also warns against the growth of the Chinese navy, an issue that has increasingly has received attention as the U.S. military interacts with it. While U.S. officials fight over whether the U.S. navy should shrink, China is going in the opposite direction, the report says.

"By 2020, barring a U.S. naval renaissance, it is possible that China will become the world's leading military shipbuilder in terms of the numbers of submarines, surface combatants and other naval surface vessels produced per year," the report says, citing Chinese military experts Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins.

The report's release comes as the Senate wrestles this week with the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, the law outlining the Defense Department's budget. Service chiefs also have continued to pointedly warn Congress about the effects of sequestration, automatic spending cuts that were put in place to reduce the federal deficit.

In one example, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert told the House Armed Services Committee in September that unless some funding is restored, one scenario under discussion would reduce the U.S. Navy in 2020 to between 255 and 260 ships, about 30 percent fewer than today. It would mean one or two fewer carrier strike groups and one or two fewer amphibious ready groups, the three-ship configurations that commonly carry U.S. Marines around the globe.

"We understand the pressing need for the nation to get its fiscal house in order," Greenert said in prepared testimony. "DOD should do its part, but it is imperative we do so in a coherent and thoughtful manner to ensure appropriate readiness, warfighting capability and forward presence - the attributes we depend upon from our Navy."

The commission's report recommends boosting funding for U.S. shipbuilding so that at least 60 ships and 60 percent of the Navy's homeports are in the Pacific by 2020 "so that the United States will have the capacity to maintain readiness and presence in the Western Pacific offset China's growing military capabilities, and surge naval assets in the event of a contingency" - part of the U.S.'s previously announced plan to shift more military operations to the Pacific.

It is unclear whether that will occur now, however, in light of the budget crunch and continued hostilities across Northern Africa and the Middle East.

While the U.S. wrestles with its future naval presence in the Pacific, it is also expanding its engagement with the Chinese military on areas where common ground can be found. Between 2012 and 2013, the number of contacts between the U.S. military and its Chinese counterpart doubles from about 20 to 40, the commission's report says. That counts visits by leaders, academic exchanges, joint exercises and other forms of interaction.

In September, two senior officers with the Chinese Navy traveled to San Diego and Washington, meeting with Greenert and touring a U.S. aircraft carrier and submarine, the report says. They also visited Camp Pendleton, Calif., where they interacted with Marine commanders, before visiting Navy leadership at the Pentagon and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

One other potential future bright spot: China will join more than 20 other nations next year in Rim of the Pacific military exercises around Hawaii - a first. The U.S. and China will continue to circle each other carefully until then, looking to learn about each other without offering more information than agreed upon.

2013 USCC Report to Congress(1) by Dan Lamothe

AFP/ Getty Images

The Complex

The Fight Against Libyan Extremists Goes Through... Bulgaria?

Yes, the Pentagon is considering the deployment of U.S. forces to the eastern European country to train Libyan troops, possibly as soon as next year. Adm. William McRaven, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, acknowledged the possibility Saturday while speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, Calif.

The discussions come as Libya faces a wave of attacks by armed militias that killed dozens of civilians this weekend. They have caused instability across the country since the 2011 death of longtime Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. The North African nation also is home to a violent extremist element that gained a new level of infamy after the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in the city of Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Chris Stevens and three other people.

McRaven's comments don't necessarily mean it will be special operators filling the mission, however. Pentagon officials told Foreign Policy on Monday that the Libyans want to train a force of 5,000 to 8,000 security personnel. The U.S. also could train a smaller Libyan counter-terrorism force, but the bulk of the effort -- and U.S. troops -- would be needed to teach basic military skills like weapons handling and patrolling.

"It's an open discussion right now on what this could look like," Air Force Maj. Rob Firman, a Pentagon spokesman, told Foreign Policy. "Theoretically, we could be talking about training small groups at a time."

Why Bulgaria? Pentagon officials did not supply a full rationale Monday, but the nation has been a member of NATO since 2004, and agreed in 2006 to have a presence of up to 2,500 U.S. troops at a time. Last year, they asked for a permanent presence of U.S. forces, according to local media reports. The training of Libyans is likely to occur at Novo Selo Training Area, a sprawling facility that U.S. forces have used regularly for years alongside friendly military forces from the Balkans. A Pentagon official said the Bulgarians are "very open" to the idea, and that the ranges there are "sort of tailor-made" for the mission.

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan first asked U.S. officials and other members of NATO to assist in training the country's military at the G8 Summit in June, Pentagon officials said. NATO and member nations the U.S., Italy and Great Britain all have agreed to help, but the specifics on how the training will occur has not yet been hashed out.

Novo Selo is one of at least four joint U.S.-Bulgarian military training facilities in Bulgaria established by the 2006 agreement the country reached with Washington.  The nation's militaries train together regularly. In one recent example, U.S. Marines and sailors conducted a two-week operation with Bulgarian soldiers at Novo Selo beginning Oct. 28, sharpening skills on everything from search tactics to raid operations. The U.S. forces were with the Black Sea Rotational Force, a Marine unit that deploys annually to work with friendly militaries in Romania, the Republic of Georgia and other countries in the region.

Pentagon officials said the U.S. is still sorting through how it can vet the Libyan forces it trains. It would be problematic, for example, if they have a history of human rights violations in their own nation, a Pentagon official told Foreign Policy. Still, senior officials seem to be aware they would be striking a balance by training Libyan forces without having a large presence of U.S. forces in northern Africa.

"There is probably some risk that some of the people we will be training with do not have the most clean record," McRaven said Saturday, according to the New York Times. "At the end of the day, it is the best solution we can find to train them to deal with their own problems."

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images