Part 3 – Gabriel’s “Telescope” Zooms out into the Distant Future
3-A: “Vile Person” Arrives on the Scene (11:21-23)
3-B: Rise to Power of a Modern “King of the North” (11:24-25)
3-C: Who Are the Kings of the North and South?
3-D: Setback to America (11:26-27)
3-E: Setback to “King of the North” and Turning Point (11:28-30)
3-F: The Great Tribulation (11:31-35)
3-G: Nature of the anti-Christ “King of the North” (11:36-37)
3-H: The “God of Forces” (11:38-39)
3-I: Among the Nations, Earth’s Final War (11:40-45)
3-B: Rise to Power of a Modern “King of the North” (11:24-25)
11:24 “He shall enter peaceably, even into the richest places of the province; and he shall do what his fathers have not done, nor his forefathers: he shall disperse among them the plunder, spoil, and riches; and he shall devise his plans against the strongholds, but only for a time.“
The same pattern of invasion is used here as described in verses 21-22 – peaceful entry followed by forceful conquest. But now it seems the “vile person” has shifted his power-seizing efforts from his home base to this “province”, probably the same “small people” of the previous verse (in Hebrew, “small nation”- maybe Palestine or Syria?). It sounds like it might be a nation whom he wants to use as a base of operations from which to make his conquest of the Mid East.
According to the previous verse, he was working “deceitfully” among them so that he could become “strong”, and the passage now seems to continue along this line, explaining how he goes about it. Apparently it’s a seductive spread-the-wealth scheme that lures this nation into allowing the Antichrist “king of the North” to establish himself there.
Again, similar to how it happened with Hitler, the Antichrist will enter “peaceably, even into the richest places of the province”. This is rather unusual since it is the richer areas of a nation that are always the most protected and most vigorously defended against invasion. So it would appear from this verse 24 that the Antichrist – similar to how it happened for Hitler in his early days – will be received with open arms into this nation which, presumably, is further away from his home base and located somewhere in the Mid East.
That this “small nation” might be the modern nation of Syria is an interesting possibility to consider… for a few reasons: 1) Syria has stood against Israel for many years, and when the “king of the North” invades Israel, as the prophecy predicts will happen (in verse 41), Syria will surely be one of the main participants in that invasion. 2) Syria is a long-standing ally of Russia and has become a focal point of confrontation between the Russian and American superpowers. 3) It would be remarkably consistent with the “king of the North” terminology as applied to ancient Syria if the modern nation of Syria, through a close partnership with Russia, once more adopted the mantle of “king of the North” by virtue of becoming a kind of Russian “spearhead” or staging ground for future wars in the Middle East and against Israel.
Now it doesn’t necessarily follow from all of this that Syria is the “small nation” and “province”, or that Syria will play the “king of the North” role. But regardless of that, it looks, from the way events are moving in the Mid East these days, like Syria is going to play a major role in future Mid East conflicts and will have little other choice but to operate under the sponsorship and direction of her powerful northern neighbor. Syria hosts Russia’s only military base outside of the former Soviet Union, and as we can see in current news, Russia is not about to allow Syria to be dominated by western powers, especially the U.S.
(Well, these are just a few suggestions about what the prophecy means; at this point though, it is mostly conjecture, and we won’t really know the outcome until these future events unfold. But in the meantime these speculations are interesting to reflect on.)
“He shall disperse among them the plunder, spoil, and riches.”
Economics can be a difficult subject, and trying to figure out how this passage should be applied is puzzling. Anyway, following are some thoughts on how we might be able to understand this sharing-the-wealth tactic of the “king of the North”.
Modern means of producing and distributing financial assets are vastly different from ancient times. Wealth is a much more flexible tool than it used to be. The role of money as a power broker and means of conquest has grown over the years and reached a degree of effectiveness never possible in olden days. And like the propaganda tactic (”flatteries”), it has been refined into a fine art in today’s world. Financial and media domains of influence are sources of immense power compared to what they were in ancient times. And these upgraded forces will prove to be a key factor in bringing the Antichrist to power.
These new tactics of conquest – money and media manipulation – differentiate modern invasions from those of ancient times. With less dependence on military tactics only, it is easier nowadays for a superpower to invade a nation “peaceably” as is pointed out in both this verse 24 and verse 21: “come in peaceably and obtain the kingdom by flatteries” (11:21-KJV); “enter peaceably… disperse among them the plunder, spoil, and riches.” (11:24-NKJV)
So here again we have another indication that this section of Gabriel’s message pertains not to the ancient past, but to the distant and modern day future. It is much easier in the modern day to prepare the hearts of people ahead of time for conquest – through propaganda or media manipulation and through lavishing wealth on them – and so “enter peaceably” rather than engage in a big military confrontation.
Regarding the money weapon, superpowers like to use it to keep smaller nations in line by undermining their economies and making them poor. But in this case, the Antichrist “shall disperse among them the plunder, spoil, and riches.” Going by this, it would appear that the Antichrist, before his invasion, has already infiltrated amongst the richer and more powerful sections of the country (“the richest places of the province”), and perhaps this is what is meant in the previous verse that “he shall act deceitfully… and become strong with a small number [nation] of people.”
Evidently, the Antichrist will have access to a vast amount of wealth, which he can use to his advantage – in this case, in the form of an enormous bribe from what sounds like ill-gotten wealth (“plunder” and “spoil”) of military or economic conquests. (To get a look at current events that seem to offer a sort of “preview” of what this verse 24 might be pointing towards, see the news articles in Appendix 1.)
In the game of empire-building, major powers have always had imperialistic designs on smaller nations for the purpose of exploiting their wealth. This happened on a grand scale during the Colonial Era. European nations were enriched by their colonies.
And we see it happening today: The United States has used the tactic of buying off the elite in many a poor, undeveloped nation. By this means the U.S. has gained unhindered access to the resources of several Third World nations. China, with its huge rising middle class, is extracting resources from many nations in Africa and South America.
But China is operating in wiser fashion than the U.S. whose approach is somewhat devious and self-serving compared to China’s. In the U.S. it is not the government, but the big financial institutions who are wheeling and dealing with smaller nations – too much profit motive and no vision for long-term development. Their devious lending strategies have obliged borrowing nations to hand over jurisdiction of their resources to these outside “developers”.
The “king of the North” will also want to use the financial weapon, but instead of exploiting the wealth of the “province”, he does just the opposite and disperses it… not out of any great concern for that nation or for mankind, but because he needs this “small number of people” so that he can “become strong”. (11:23) Perhaps he’ll need to use that nation as a beachhead or staging ground from which he can make his invasion of Israel and the Middle East.
Now these verses 21-24 have described events from the point of view of the local politics and economies of the nations the Antichrist must use as stepping stones in his climb to world power. But what happens on a local scale can sometimes be a microcosm of what happens on an international scale. In our modern world especially, there is much standardization of technology and culture because of the ease of communication through media and computer technology and through travel.
Perhaps then, the Antichrist will use, or will already have used, many of the same tactics on a worldwide scale as he is seen to be using on a smaller scale (in the “kingdom” of verse 21 and the “small people” and “province” of verses 23-24). His tactics of entering peaceably with flatteries and dispersing the wealth will serve to gain him the support of the world at large. That is, his access to the media will foster acceptance, even worship of him on a worldwide scale, and his access to and manipulation of financial wealth will help him to solve the problems worldwide of a deteriorating world economy.
Instead of concentrating all the wealth in a few hands (which is surely one of the main causes for the world’s present dire financial turmoil), the Antichrist and his backers (the False Prophet Beast) will figure they can afford to “disperse” some of that wealth. They may try to promote a fairer taxation system; or they could make use of the mark-number credit system (described in Revelation 13) in a way that will relieve the world’s financial distress. At the same time such a plan of action would, of course, go a long way towards consolidating their hold on the springs of power and on the allegiance of the world’s people.
Indeed, we see this happening already in Russian-Chinese international policies. The Belt and Road Initiative, for example, is a massive infrastructure project, spearheaded by China, that seeks to upgrade and integrate economies all through Asia and even into Europe. The project is steadily becoming an alternative to the American capitalist system, and this Russian-Chinese combine seems poised to become the next world empire.
Although such policies are much needed in the world and would appear to be very just, it is well to remember that the power-brokers promoting such plans will be doing it with the aim of getting a tighter grip on the reins of world power.
For awhile these reforms will give their totalitarian rule a benign façade. Whether or not they will actually implement such a new tax or wealth re-distribution scheme we don’t know, but one thing is certain: it makes a great platform or promise which a politically astute leader (the Antichrist) can use to create a wave of euphoric hysteria and thereby gain the favor of the masses.
Whatever happens in the initial stages of the Antichrist’s popularity, and despite whatever promises he makes, or even delivers on, we can be sure the new regime will show its true colors eventually, especially when it tries to force its secular religion of materialism and man-worship on the world. What seemed at first like benign dictatorship will devolve into oppressive tyranny.
It may resemble some aspects of Hitler’s rise to power: very popular in the beginning, not just in Germany, but in many other nations Hitler was admired for his strong leadership. And fixing Germany’s economic problems was a key factor that won him favor amongst the German people. Then, once firmly in the seat of power, his true colors showed, and Hitler transformed into the oppressive warmongering tyrant, as he is remembered now in history.
In like fashion, the Antichrist will start off as the agent of much-needed change in the world, even as God’s instrument of chastisement on His wayward people. But eventually, he too will transform into a Hitler-like “vile person”, as he is called in verse 21.
Now this tactic of entering “peaceably” and dispersing the wealth bears some resemblance to the old Communist strategy. Instead of winning the rich, however, the Communists tried only to get the poor on their side through propaganda – promising to take the wealth of the rich and give it to the poor. Winning the people’s hearts like this made it much easier to stage Communist revolutions and thereby conquer many nations of the world. By this means the Soviet empire was able to greatly expand its influence during the Cold War days of the last century. No doubt this sort of propaganda will play an important role in implementing the Antichrist and False Prophet’s new financial scheme on the world.
However, under the Antichrist and False Prophet this sharing-the-wealth tactic will operate with a new twist: there will be the same take-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor strategy, but apparently, the idea will be a little smarter – win the poor, yes, but without driving away the rich whose capable leadership will be needed to run industries properly and efficiently. This we can guess will be the approach because the passage here tells us that “he shall enter peaceably, even into the richest places.”
Failing to engage the wealthy was one of the big mistakes made in the Communist revolutions in Russia and China (and in the French Revolution in 1789). After getting rid of the ruling aristocracies, there was no one left who knew how to run the manufacturing and agricultural industries. And these nations suffered great economic decline as a result.
During the Nazi revolution in Germany of the 1930s, things happened differently however. Hitler wisely opposed the “dump the capitalist aristocracy” plan that some of his more zealous but less practical followers were advocating. In fact, to make sure that didn’t happen, Hitler murdered the main proponent of that plan along with 200 supporters in that infamous massacre known as “The Night of the Long Knives”. Having thus gained control of Germany’s industrial base without destroying its leadership was a major factor in transforming Germany into a prosperous nation and one that was strong enough to wage war against Europe and America from 1939 to 1945.
And here might be where this peculiar statement fits, “he shall do what his fathers have not done, nor his forefathers.” That is, the Antichrist and False Prophet’s financial plans will reverse and correct the policy of their predecessors in the land of Russia; the mistakes of the former Communist Revolution, and even earlier, the French Revolution, will not be repeated because whatever new regime takes over there will not try to wipe out the elite leaders of industry. And presumably, they will carry out a similar policy in the “small nation” and “province” where they “enter peaceably, even into the richest places of the province.”
And going back even further into the ancient past of Daniel’s time, then also it was customary for invaders to overthrow the ruling elite and replace them with their own nation’s rulers. From the Old Testament Scriptures we know that the Assyrian and Babylonian kingdoms weakened their conquered territories by dispersing the elite classes, carting them off into captivity in other lands. Now in this prophetic message Gabriel is talking to Daniel, who as a young man was sent as a captive to Babylon. So maybe Gabriel was trying to show the contrast: how, in the distant future, tactics of conquest were going to change from what Daniel had personally experienced.
What is unique about our modern situation are the new avenues of power – media and finances – that have entered the picture, making it possible to conquer nations without using military force. Under this arrangement, the ruling classes of “conquered” nations stay intact but become puppets more or less of their “conqueror”. There is a hint of this, by the way, in the symbolism of the “beast” and his “ten horns” with their “ten crowns”. They are only “horns”, small nations, who can only do what their “head” tells them to do, yet they still have their “crowns”. (Revelation 13:1) (More information in post “Ten Horns Coming into View?”)
In summary: Unlike how Daniel’s “forefathers” would have done it, the modern “king of the North” will make his invasion “peaceably” into the small territory and into its richest places. And instead of destroying the leaders of industry, it seems he will manage to harness them to his own cause and war campaigns. And instead of exploiting that nation for its resources, he “shall disperse among them the plunder, spoil, and riches”.
“He shall devise his plans against the strongholds.”
By means of all this financial manipulation and propaganda, the Antichrist will steadily strengthen his position of power. Then, having made his “peaceable” infiltration into this “small nation”, he will be ready to take over in full force. “He shall devise his plans against the strongholds”, or in the KJV, “He shall forecast his devices against the strongholds”.
Whether that means against the “small people”, or against surrounding nations, or both, is not clear at present. It could be that once the “small nation” realizes they are getting sucked into a big war and being used and taken over by the Antichrist, there will be some opposition, and the Antichrist will have to flex some military muscle to get this small nation to see things his way.
Or perhaps just as likely, judging by the next verse 25, the “strongholds” could be situated in areas/nations that are allies of the “king of the South” (symbolic, it would appear, of America and her Mid East allies). In fact, we may be seeing a hint of this in Russia’s recent intervention in Syria. Russia is supporting the ruling elite, “the richest places of the province”,whereas U.S. strategy has been to overthrow Syria’s government. (America has used this practice of regime change several times to overthrow rulers too independent of her interests: Godhafi in Libya, Allende in Chile, Trujillo in Panama, Mosaddegh in Iran, etc.)
By forecasting her “devices against the strongholds”, Russia’s intervention in the civil war has succeeded in keeping the American forces and proxies at bay. This resistance against the king of the South’s proxy armies (“strongholds”) could lead to the sort of major confrontation we see happening between the two “kings” in the next verse 26. (Whether the above scenario is accurate or not is difficult to determine right now, but it does seem a good possibility.)
The most literal translation of this Hebrew phrase would be “devise his devices”, two English words that have a common origin. The Hebrew words used here – chashab and machashebeth – also have a common origin. The word chashab means “to think, reckon, compute”. This denotes a higher, more intense level of thinking than other more casual forms of thinking.
And the word machashebeth is the result of that kind of “thinking” – plans, plots, strategies, inventions, and so on. It could either be a mental result (a complex strategy or plot or scheme of some kind), or it could be a physical result (something more down-to-earth and practical – an invention of some sort, something more intricate and complex than the usual run of manufactured objects).
Interestingly, in modern Hebrew machashebeth means “computer”. Since the passage here is set in the context of war, we could easily understand this “devise devices” phrase as a reference to the intricate computer-guided weaponry that scientist have invented in recent times. (For more information on this peculiar phrase, see Appendix 2.)
However we may want to understand this phrase chashab machashebeth – whether as a reference to ingenious strategy or to ingenious weapons (or both maybe) – one thing is clear from it: this “vile person” possesses great skill in the art of warfare. This high-level strategy and/or weaponry is the deciding factor that gives the Antichrist the advantage in these power struggles. And this fits in well with what Revelation 13:4-5 reveals to us about the “beast” (the Antichrist), that “the world marveled and followed the beast… saying, ‘Who is able to make war with him?’”
All in all, these phrases about devising devices are quite mysterious, and one feature in them that stands out is this: the “devise devices” phrase, like the “enter peaceably” phrase, is repeated twice. That is rather unusual and seems to clue us into the fact that the angel, who surely knew what he was talking about, was trying to draw attention to certain peculiar features about how the “king of the North” would conduct his warfare. And looking at the phrases more closely – both the “devise devices” and “enter peaceably” phrases – we se how they could easily be applied to the kind of warfare that our world is so busily engaged in nowadays.
And related to this is the peculiar statement, “he shall do what his fathers have not done, nor his forefathers.” That was applied earlier to the unique way in which the Antichrist will “disperse the riches”, how he cunningly manipulates wealth to his advantage, which seems to be a peculiar feature of modern times – the powerful and flexible financial system that enables power-brokers to force a nation to bend to their will, and in this case enables the Antichrist to make his “peaceable” entry into the “province” spoken of here. Without trying to overthrow the rich and powerful (but just weaken them), he succeeds in conquering the nation.
But besides the realm of financial manipulation, this “fathers… forefathers” phrase seems to link also to the next phrase: “and he shall devise his devices against the strongholds.” As discussed earlier, this could be a reference to another peculiar feature of modern times: the weapons used now in warfare.
So it is these peculiar strategies of conquest – entering peaceably by dispersing the wealth and devising devices – that are the reason for the angel’s statement that “he shall do what his fathers have not done, nor his forefathers.” They differ so much from the warfare tactics of the past, and the most logical reason is because the events described here are not happening in the past, but in the Modern Age.
In ancient Hebrew the word for “father” or “fathers” had a fairly wide range of meaning other than as a reference to one’s biological father. (Some Bible versions translate “forefathers” as “ancestors” or “fathers’ fathers”.) The phrase was commonly used to refer to distant ancestors and, most likely, the term here does not refer to the generation of the king of the north’s grandfather. It might even be Gabriel’s way of referring to the “forefathers” mentioned earlier in his discourse: Antiochus III and Antiochus Epiphanes and the other kings mentioned whose exploits and character pre-figure those of the Antichrist.
To Gabriel this might have seemed like a good way to get across the idea that the activities of the “king of the North”, taking place in a distant future age, would be much different to how things were normally done in Daniel’s day and age. The Hebrew text uses a threefold repetition of the word “fathers”, which suggests that a great span of time has elapsed. “He shall do that which his fathers have not done, nor his fathers’ fathers.” (KJV)
Similar phrases are repeated in verses 37-38: “he shall regard neither the God of his fathers. . . a god which his fathers did not know.” We shall look into these verses 37-38 later on, but briefly, they describe the modern secular “religion” that the Antichrist will follow, a belief system devoid of religious trappings, and therefore, a religion that “his fathers did not know”.
Now it is interesting to note that these phrases (in verses 37-38) are sandwiched between two “time of the end” phrases (in verses 35 and 40). Evidently then, their setting is the modern era. So it would seem, by way of association at least, that this verse 24, which likewise contains a reference to something that was unknown to “his fathers”, should also have the same setting as verses 37-38 – namely, the “time of the end”.
So here we have another small clue or indicator that this passage (from verse 21 on) is supposed to be majoring on the End Time, not the ancient past. Whereas in verses 2-20 the subject matter clearly dwells on events of the ancient past, and so as one would expect, there is no mention of the king of the North doing anything very different from his “fathers” or “forefathers”. These peculiar phrases seem to be reserved for events taking place in the “time of the end”, the modern era, when religion and technology have transformed so much that their present forms were totally unknown to the people of ancient times.
So these phrases about “his fathers” and “forefathers” is another signpost, directing us to understand the modern character of these wars of the Antichrist “king of the North”. It signals for us that the passage from verse 21 on should be understood as describing events of the (not-so-distant) future; the passage should not be relegated into ancient history, as past Bible scholarship has usually taught.
“But only for a time.” Whatever form the king of the north’s actions “against the strongholds” may take, it seems to be for just a short time. This “only for a time” phrase may refer to a preliminary move that prepares the way for the major battle to come in the next verse (26). Or it may just refer to the battle itself, that it will be a short-lived one. For some reason the warring parties stop fighting and try to sit down and talk (as we learn in verse 27).
Verse 25 “He shall stir up his power and his courage against the king of the South with a great army. And the king of the South shall be stirred up to battle with a very great and mighty army; but he shall not stand, for they shall devise plans against him.”
“He shall stir up his power and his courage against the king of the South with a great army.” This foretells a major confrontation taking place, either between superpowers, or perhaps just as likely, between their proxy states and allies. In ancient times there was much warring going on between Egypt and Syria. In the end Syria and Antiochus Epiphanes got the upper hand but never really conquered Egypt. That is something that has been left to the Antichrist to achieve. (11:42-43)
In this particular war, the “king of the North” wins because of his forecasting of “devices”. As mentioned earlier, this little phrase or “sound byte” seems to take us out of the realm of ancient times. It’s like a clue or a glimpse of what modern warfare will be like – with its dependence on clever “devices”: sophisticated computer technology, advanced satellite systems for spying, high-grade weapons that track their targets, and on and on the list could go. Till now, the U.S. has had the tactical advantage in military technology, and Russia is far behind. How Russia will ever catch up we don’t know, but again, looking at the example of Nazi Germany, we know that a nation can, under the right (or wrong) kind of leadership, re-arm and prepare itself for war in a fairly short span of time.
(See Appendix 3 news articles about Russian-Chinese advances in military/computer technology that could in the future upend U.S. military superiority.)
These verses 21-25 have required no small amount of explanation, and one may wonder, why does it have to be so difficult to figure out what this passage means? There are a few reasons:
1) Ancient Hebrew had a limited vocabulary, which makes it difficult to pinpoint the precise shade of meaning for words.
2) Grammatical signposts such as commas, periods, verse divisions did not exist in the ancient language.
3) For these Scriptures about the End Time, it is especially difficult to translate them without knowing the context. Interpreters and scholars of the past did not have the advantage of knowing the context because the historical setting had not yet arrived. So it was easy to assign the setting of a prophetic passage to the wrong historical era. Nowadays, that historical setting has arrived. And this necessitates a review of how certain passages should be interpreted – like this one in Daniel 11. We understand modern technology and culture, and thus we can see more easily how the passage would fit better into a different context – namely, that of modern times. Which brings us to the fourth reason why so much explanation is needed…
4) Similar to how an archeologist has to carefully clear away the rubble of centuries to expose the ancient artifacts that lie buried underground, the same is true in some (not all) cases of interpretation of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. There is a bit of a process to go through in peeling away some of the well-meaning explanations of past generations of scholars, while at the same time trying to uncover the truths that have lain buried underneath them for so many generations.
Taking these factors into consideration, we can understand how easy it would be to assign an inaccurate interpretation to some of the ancient Scriptures. Especially in prophetic passages like these dealing with future history, since history tends to repeat itself, it is quite easy to place the passage in the wrong historical era.
Russian Defiance Is Seen as a Confidence Builder for Syria’s Government
By Anne Barnard, NY Times – March 21, 2014
DAMASCUS, Syria—Russia’s growing rift with the West over the crisis in Ukraine has bolstered the confidence of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, pro-government analysts here say, emboldening him to press ahead with plans for re-election despite a three-year insurgency and making Syrian officials doubt that Russia will pressure him to compromise anytime soon.
The Syrian government is acting with new assurance as its ally Russia moves to take over the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, dismissing American objections and signaling growing assertiveness against the West. Russia has been the Syrian government’s most powerful backer, vetoing measures against Mr. Assad that the United States has supported in the United Nations Security Council. And now, Syrian analysts close to the government say, that seems less and less likely to change.
The prospect of a compromise brokered by Russian and American officials to end the Syrian war seems increasingly remote, with no date set for the resumption of talks in Geneva. Instead, bonds are deepening, on both official and grass-roots levels, between Moscow and Damascus, Cold War allies that now see themselves standing together against Western aggression.
The strong relationship with Russia, combined with recent battlefield victories for the government, like its seizure of the hilltop Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers on Thursday along a strategic highway, are reinforcing a sense here and abroad that Mr. Assad will stay in power at least for the medium term. A pro-government Syrian journalist assessed official views this way: “Frankly, their attitude is, ‘We don’t need Geneva.’”
To Russian and Syrian officials and their supporters, the Syrian war and the standoff over the Crimean Peninsula are essentially part of a single, larger battle, against post-Cold War American unilateralism. They see themselves as resisting Western conspiracies to topple inconvenient but legitimate presidents, Mr. Assad in Syria, and in Ukraine, the pro-Russian leader Viktor F. Yanukovych, whose flight in the face of street protests led to Russia’s actions in Crimea.
Russia’s stance has fostered a new Russophilia among a new generation of government supporters here, who, much as their elders flocked to Moscow to study in the Soviet Union’s heyday, applaud plans for new Russian classes in Syrian schools.
And it has brought displays of long-distance camaraderie between the two governments’ supporters—and their detractors, who see their own, different parallels between Ukraine and Syria. They see Moscow and Damascus as too quick to sanction the use of force against popular protests that the governments dismiss as the work of terrorists and conspirators.
Anti-Russian protesters in Ukraine and opposition activists in Syria have hoisted one another’s flags, as have pro-government demonstrators in Moscow and Damascus.
The Syrian government, not unlike President Obama’s critics in Washington, sees the recent events as part of a decline in America’s influence and a rise in Russia’s. By meddling in the affairs of other countries, from Iraq to the former Soviet countries, said one prominent businessman and political observer in Syria, the United States provoked the world and squandered its position as the sole global power after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
“Now there is Russia, China, and tomorrow God knows who else,” said the businessman, E. Ali Al-Ahmad, the general secretary of the chamber of industry in the city of Homs, emphasizing that he was offering his personal political analysis. “America is forcing the world to oppose it. Even a small country like Syria is standing up to the United States.”
The American system contributed much to the world by fostering creativity, he said, waving his iPhone to demonstrate. “But now,” he said, “that system is destroying itself from within.”
During the Cold War, Syria, led by Mr. Assad’s father, President Hafez al-Assad, was squarely in the Soviet orbit, with a planned economy like Moscow’s. Soviet engineers built dams on the Euphrates River. Apartment blocks much like Moscow’s sprouted around Damascus.
Studying in Moscow was a coveted privilege, and thousands of Syrians brought back Russian wives, many still here despite the war. Half of the university professors here were educated in Russia. Among Syria’s government and opposition alike are Soviet-era alumni who speak Russian fluently and fondly remember their days as students in Moscow.
After the Soviet collapse in 1991, Russia kept its naval base on the Syrian coast. But when the London-educated Bashar al-Assad became president in 2000, he turned westward, at least in a commercial sense, opening Syria to Western companies. English, not Russian, became de rigueur among the elite.
Then came the Syrian revolt. Opposing Western support for it was a natural extension of Russia’s long-stated aversion to international interference on human rights issues. With Iran and China, Moscow sustained the Assad government financially.
Most crucially, after chemical attacks last August, Russia helped avert an American military strike by brokering a deal to remove Syria’s toxic arms. “Thank you, Russia,” read fliers in Russian and Arabic taped to downtown Damascus walls.
Later, the Syrian government announced that next year, Syrian children could study Russian instead of French, in addition to required English. The goals, the education minister told Hezbollah’s Al Manar television channel, was to renew Soviet-era ties and build cultural bonds with “peoples who want to cooperate based on mutual respect and common interests.”
RUSSIA AND SYRIA: An Old Base (Friendship) Gets a Facelift
By Uwe Klussmann, Der Spiegel – June 22, 2006
A mild westerly wind blows in from the Mediterranean onto the harbor of Tartus, where cube-shaped and weathered brownish houses sit atop Phoenician era ruins. A small mosque’s minaret and a fish restaurant dominate the scene.
But this idyllic image quickly disappears just a few minutes outside the town, where Russian soldiers have set up camp. Surrounded by olive groves and long greenhouses, and guarded by Syrian marines, Moscow’s last remaining naval base outside of the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) lurks behind a tall metal fence.
At the Tartus naval base, covering an area of almost a hundred acres, about 300 men serve under the command of sea captain Vladimir Gudkov, a former officer in Russia’s North Sea fleet. When Gudkov was transferred to Syria from Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula, Russia’s outpost in Mediterranean was still plagued by a reputation for being a run-down place in the sun.
Founded by the Phoenicians, conquered by the Crusaders in 1102 and subsequently attacked by legendary Arab hero Saladin, the port city just 160 kilometers northwest of Damascus has always been considered strategically important. During the Cold War it served as a supply hub for the Soviets’ Mediterranean fleet. But after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the Soviet fleet disappeared from Mediterranean waters and the Tartus base became dilapidated.
But this quickly changed when Gudkov brought in repair teams from Sevastopol to upgrade the facility. A team of technicians is currently replacing hatches and antennas on the base’s floating dock, where incoming ships are refueled and loaded with provisions. More and more Russian landing vessels like the “Jamal,” and modernized warships like the “Smetlivy” and the “Pytlivy,” are dropping anchor in the ancient Crusader port. The missile cruiser “Moskva,” the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, with a crew of 850 and Vice Admiral Vassily Kondakov on board, paid a visit to the Latakia naval base in February. As in the old days, Kondakov met with the head of Syria’s navy to assure his Syrian counterpart that Russian-Syrian relations are about to experience “an upswing.”
This, at least, is what Russian President Vladimir Putin intends. In a speech to military commanders, the Kremlin chief said that a newly “modern and mobile” Russian fleet will once again be flying its colors on the world’s oceans. The president had nothing but praise for Russia’s navy, which he said has become “significantly more active” in the Mediterranean, clearly a reflection of Putin’s efforts to boost his country’s profile in the Middle East.
Syria is Russia’s most important partner in the region. Thirty-five thousand Syrians hold degrees from Russian universities. At a Kremlin reception for Syrian President Bashar Assad, Putin, referring to the Soviet era, praised the two countries’ “special and sincere relations”–and promptly forgave about $10 billion in Syrian debt accumulated over the years, principally as a result of arms purchases. Over three decades, the current president’s father, Hafiz Assad, received military equipment valued at about $25 billion from the Russians. To this day, the 308,000 troops in the country’s armed forces are equipped almost exclusively with Soviet gear, including 4,600 tanks, primarily T-72 and T-62 models, about 600 MIG and Sukhoi fighter jets, 170 helicopters and at least two diesel-powered submarines.
Putin guaranteed the delivery of Russian Streletz anti-aircraft missiles (referred to as SA-18s in NATO parlance). The carriage-mounted missiles with a range of six kilometers (about four miles) could make “low altitude flights over the residence of the Syrian president” more difficult in the future, Putin said in an interview with Israeli television. Indeed, Israel deeply humiliated the Syrians last year when it sent a squadron of F-16 fighter jets on a low-altitude mission encircling Assad’s summer residence near the Russian base.
An office of Russia’s state-owned arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, in Damascus is supplying the Russians’ dependable customers with new guidance systems and spare parts for tanks, modern electronics systems for MIG-21 fighter jets and ammunition. Sergei Chemesov, a Putin associate from the two men’s days working for the KGB in East Germany, runs the company’s Moscow headquarters. In the last seven years alone, Syria’s Baathist regime has ordered Russian weapons valued at more than $1 billion, including Su-27 pursuit planes, MIG-29 fighter jets and T-80 tanks. But in a departure from Soviet days, Moscow now demands cash payment.
Moscow’s military assistance is going to a country US President George W. Bush has called an “extraordinary threat to US national security,” a country the US State Department classifies as a sponsor of terrorism because of its support for terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah.
But what most concerns American military experts is the Syrian army’s acquisition of about 1,000 Russian Kornet-E anti-tank guided missiles. The weapon also has the Pentagon concerned, because of its ability to turn even the most state-of-the-art Bradley armored personnel carrier into burning scrap metal from distances of up to 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) within seconds. About 10,000 Syrian officers have received top-rate training at both Soviet and Russian military academies, with a fresh crop of pilots and air defense specialists currently attending Russia’s air force academy.
Western experts estimate that up to 2,000 Russian military advisors, under the command of Lieutenant General Vassily Jakushev, 60, the former commander-in-chief of the country’s Far East military district, are currently serving in the Syrian military. Russian officers hold teaching positions at Syria’s military officer training academy.
Serving on the Mediterranean is popular. With even low-ranking officers earnings at least $1,000 a month, military pay on the Syrian frontier is about triple what it is at home. But a Syrian tour of duty, which usually lasts three years, does have its price: isolation. In an effort to avoid being conspicuous, the Russian guests wear Syrian uniforms and are required to spend their free time with their families in isolated compounds, with a small vacation on Latakia’s sandy, palm-lined beaches a rare and precious respite from the monotony of life on base.
Russia modernizing Syria ports for its warships
World Tribune – April 15, 2010
MOSCOW — The Russian Navy has been expanding cooperation with Syria.
Officials said the navies of Russia and Syria were enhancing cooperation over the last year. They said Moscow was modernizing naval facilities in Syria’s port of Latakia and Tartous to accommodate Russian Navy warships.
“I am certain that we will witness new and significant progress in our bilateral cooperation in the near future,” Russian ambassador to Syria, Sergei Kirpichenko, said.
On April 14, Kirpichenko welcomed the arrival of the Russian Navy’s nuclear-powered missile cruiser, Pyotr Veliky, to Tartous. Russia has modernized Tartous and deploys 50 naval officers to maintain and supply warships that operate in the Mediterranean.
“The Pyotr Veliky’s visit to the Syrian port of Tartus is a symbolic event,” Kirpichenko said. “It is a continuation of our historic ties with Syria that serves as a guarantee of our future cooperation not only in the naval sphere but also in other areas.”
Officials said a large Syrian Navy delegation visited Pyotr Veliky. Pyotr Veliky has been deemed the flagship of Russia’s Northern Fleet and was headed for an exercise in the Indian Ocean.
In September 2008, the Kremlin launched negotiations with the regime of President Bashar Assad to convert Tartous into a permanent Russian Navy base. Officials said Moscow also offered to modernize the Syrian Navy port at Latakia.
Tartous was said to have been expanded to accommodate large Russian warships. Officials said Tartous, with three berthing floats, could handle up to a dozen naval vessels.
Officials said the Russian Navy regards Syria as a vital base for operations in the Mediterranean and surrounding regions. They said Moscow has been training the Syrian Navy as part of the strategic arrangement.
“According to the Russian Navy, the naval base in Syria significantly boosts Russia’s operational capability in the region because the warships based there are capable of reaching the Red Sea through the Suez Canal and the Atlantic through the Strait of Gibraltar in a matter of days,” the Moscow-based RIA Novosti news agency said.
Appendix 2: “Devise his Devices” – Strategy or Weaponry?
“Devise his plans.” The most literal translation of this Hebrew phrase would have been “devise his devices”, two English words that have a common origin. The Hebrew words used here – chashab for “devise” and machashebeth for “devices” – also have a common origin. The word chashab means “to think, reckon, compute”. This is thinking on a higher plane, at a more intense level than the more casual form of thinking would be. And the word machashebeth is the result of that kind of “thinking” – plans, plots, strategies, inventions, and so on.
This also bears some resemblance to our English words “engine” and “ingenious”, which also have a common root. It takes “ingenuity” to invent an “engine”. In fact, the Hebrew word for “engine” is chishshebonoth, which is also related to chashab and machashebeth. In 2Chronicles 26:15 it is stated that the Jewish king Uzziah “made in Jerusalem engines, invented by cunning men, to be on the towers and upon the bulwarks, to shoot arrows and great stones withal.” (KJV) In this Scripture all three words (engines, invented, cunning) are related and used to describe the manufacture of these ingenious devices, what in those days were their state-of-the-art weapons of war – catapults of various types.
Now the word machashabeth in this verse 24 and in the next verse 25 is the noun form of the Hebrew verb chashab (“to think”) – just as the English word “device” is the noun form of the verb “devise”. To “devise” is to do the mental work needed to produce a clever “device” of some kind. The Hebrew word for “device” (machashabeth) can be translated in two ways, similar to how the English word “device” can be understood in two ways. It could either be a mental result (a complex strategy or plot or scheme of some kind), or it could be a physical result (something more down-to-earth and practical – an invention of some sort, something more intricate and complex than the usual run of manufactured objects).
In the Old Testament machashebeth was translated often as “cunning work” in reference to the intricate carved objects of gold, silver, brass, and so on that were made to adorn the Jewish temple; but mainly, it was a general term for anything that was a clever invention, something that required much skill and ingenuity to make. In modern Hebrew the word machashabeth has come to mean “computer”, which is one of the most ingenious “devices” that scientists have ever invented. So the ancient word machashebeth probably could be applied to any of a whole array of modern inventions – computers, weapons, TVs, cameras, and there’s no end of things it could stand for.
Now in this verse 24 and in the next verse 25, the Hebrew word machashabeth was translated as “plans”, suggesting that some clever strategy was used as the means for achieving victory in the battles mentioned in these verses. To the translators this version of the word for “device” probably seemed to fit into what they assumed was the context for this passage – the wars of Antiochus Epiphanes in ancient times.
But if the context were modern times, how might this word be translated? Now in these cases where the translation of a Hebrew word is uncertain, it usually helps to look at the context in order to find an accurate meaning for the word. And what is the context here? Besides being set in modern times, the context is also that of warfare.
Noteworthy is the fact that these “devices” seem to be a key factor in bringing these ”strongholds” under the Antichrist’s control and in defeating his enemy, the “king of the South”. Both kings are “stirred up to battle”, each “with a great army”. Now of course we know that strategy, planning, these types of “devices” have always played a major part in any age in any war.
But there seems to be something different here. In modern times ingenious weapons of war have become a much more important component in warfare than ever before in history. And this aspect could be what the angel was trying to get at here (using the limited vocabulary available in those days to describe such futuristic realities).
Further ahead, as we focus on the phrases “abomination of desolation” and “god of fortresses/munitions”, we shall see even more clearly how Gabriel was trying to get across what he foresaw would be the unique aspects of future warfare with its unheard-of-in-those-days weaponry. He was trying to show that by means of some kind of clever futuristic inventions (by “devising his devices”), the Antichrist would gain the upper hand in this war against the “king of the South”.
◊ Limited Vocabulary of Ancient Hebrew:
An important aspect of ancient Hebrew that should be kept in mind: With its rather limited vocabulary (normal for languages in their early stages of development), a Hebrew word could encompass many different shades of meaning, which in English could be translated by several different words. For this reason translators often experience difficulty in trying to pinpoint the best word to use for an ancient Hebrew word. In these cases, to eliminate some of the guesswork, it helps to look at the context and other clues that will aid in finding a more or less accurate translation of the word or phrase in question.
Since there were no words in ancient Hebrew for the kind of modern technology used in warfare nowadays, it seems that the angel was obliged to use some fairly general terminology. Even if these ancient words – chashab machashebeth – could not pinpoint the exact meaning, as far as the translation side of it goes, we would not be straying outside the boundaries of the general sense of this phrase to select something like this: “he shall develop/deploy his computerized weapons against the strongholds”. Although there is no undeniable proof that this is correct or legitimate, the context of warfare in modern times does at least suggest that it might be a good translation to use.
Translating this phrase as “devise plans” would fit well with events in Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ day. But is that what the angel Gabriel was really getting at here? By mentioning twice this “devise devices” phrase, it seems the angel is trying to draw attention to something unusual, something different. Now there is nothing unusual about clever war strategies; they have always been used in warfare. And if that’s all this phrase was meant to convey, then it should have been used several times already in Gabriel’s message in those parts of it that refer to the warfare going on in ancient times. As far as clever strategy is concerned, there has been plenty of that mentioned already in verse 21 and here in verse 24: the king of the North’s subtle infiltration tactics of first entering “peaceably” into nations that he intends to conquer.
But now what big change has taken place in how the world practices its dark art of warfare? It lies most obviously in the kind of weaponry which he uses nowadays. Gone are the clumsy inventions of yesteryear, which have almost nothing in common with modern weaponry: computer-guided missiles and drones, explosive devices of all kinds, machine guns, nuclear weapons, and so on.
Since it would appear that the message has actually shifted into the End Time (because of the “prince of the covenant” phrase in verse 22), then would it not make more sense to understand this “devise devices” phrase as applying to something unique to modern times? Could it not mean that, through his clever use of various modern inventions, the Antichrist will gain the upper hand in this war against the “king of the South”?
Through cyber warfare perhaps (which the Russians have used before to cripple a nation’s communications systems and the Americans/Israelis have used before to cripple Iran’s nuclear program)? Or some of these hi-tech weapons that exist nowadays in a nation’s military arsenal? Or the use of spy satellites? Or some form of biological warfare? Or perhaps a combination of these modern “devices”? Or maybe some weapon we haven’t even heard of yet?
Any of these could be categorized as inventions or “devices” that are the product of much ingenious thought and would fit nicely within the scope of what these Hebrew words could mean. And any one of these weapons would be unheard of in ancient times, but as a feature of modern warfare would be worthy of mention in a message given by an angel of God to outline what was going to happen in the distant future.
In olden days this phrase was rather puzzling, and translators couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it. Although still rather puzzling, it is starting to make a little more sense now in this age of advanced technology.
Western armies are losing their high-tech edge
Peter Apps, Reuters, 5 July 2018
[Key portions highlighted]
When America goes to war, its soldiers, sailors and pilots typically have long been used to having a spectacular technological edge. Those days are ending fast.
From the South China Sea to Eastern Europe–and even the Korean Peninsula–U.S. commanders are now considering the prospect of war against enemies who may be capable of deploying overwhelming firepower and sophisticated new technology. Confrontations with Russia and China in particular are escalating far faster than predicted–with the realistic prospect either nation could outgun U.S. forces in their immediate neighborhood in the early stages of any conflict.
The Pentagon is increasingly worried about rapid proliferation of Chinese and Russian anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, putting U.S. military planners in an unfamiliar position. The last time U.S. forces went to war without an overwhelming advantage was against Nazi German troops in North Africa in 1943.
Meanwhile, hybrid and information warfare are themselves reshaping the rules of international confrontation in ways the West has yet to truly tackle–and which emerging technology is continually making more complex.
In 2014, the Pentagon announced its “third offset strategy,” predicting it could use America’s technological superiority to maintain its military edge. Increasingly, however, commanders and analysts suspect new advancements in areas such as cyber warfare, drones, and artificial intelligence may at least equally benefit America’s foes–not least because they are proving much more willing to test them in action.
Almost every week brings new developments. Earlier this month, German officials blamed Russia for what they said were a series of cyber attacks aimed at penetrating the country’s power grid, echoing similar U.S. allegations. CNN quoted a U.S. military source as saying the Chinese were suspected to be behind a series of lasers used to target U.S. aircraft flying over disputed areas of the East China Sea. As is increasingly the norm, Moscow and Beijing denied involvement in either set of incidents.
Technologies that until recently were only found in the hands of the United States and its closest allies are now much more widespread. At the time of its 2008 war with Georgia, Russia lacked any significant military unmanned drone program, but now uses them routinely in both Syria and Ukraine. Using suspected hacked and stolen plans, China has built its own stealth fighters as well as its own bespoke new systems such as ballistic missiles specifically designed to target U.S. aircraft carriers.
It’s difficult to say how well that weaponry would function against the U.S. military in any war. What is clearer, however, is that the United States faces a specific problem in most of its confrontations. While the U.S. military remains more powerful than any other, it is spread across the globe. Its enemies, meanwhile–whether Russia, China or smaller states like Iran and North Korea–have dedicated almost all their forces to fighting in their own backyards. If war should come, that would put nearby U.S. and allied forces at a significant disadvantage, quite possibly outgunned entirely.
Upcoming breakthroughs may make that even worse. Increasingly, military experts talk of an arms race between major nations on artificial intelligence that could be as crucial to this century as the race for atomic weapons during World War Two. Some U.S. officials openly worry Washington may be falling behind in this contest, particularly with some major Silicon Valley firms such as Google reluctant to work with the Pentagon on military contracts.
Speaking at a major military conference in London earlier this month, one senior officer said that the first nation to deploy an electromagnetic pulse weapon on the battlefield to disable enemy systems would reshape the face of warfare. Once again, it is far from obvious that is a race the United States will win.
Most major nations, such as Britain, believe recent investment in major weapons platforms such as aircraft carriers and F-35 jets should still give them the edge. Even there, though, experts worry whether the next generation of technology–such as robotic vehicles–will prove functional in a major conflict where a sophisticated enemy might be able to shut them down. More seriously, Western analysts worry critical national infrastructure may already have been penetrated by cyber attackers who could turn off essential systems on the first day of any conflict.
That sheer level of uncertainty may itself make conflict more likely, with nations more likely to strike first to gain a tactical advantage while struggling to realistically assess what their enemies can and wish to do. The United States and its potential foes can ill afford to ignore these accelerating trends, and unless they can find some common ground to at least discuss them the consequences could be disastrous.
The Global War of 2030
By Alfred McCoy, TomDispatch, October 02, 2017
[This piece has been adapted and expanded from Alfred W. McCoy’s new book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power.]
[Key portions highlighted]
For the past 50 years, American leaders have been supremely confident that they could suffer military setbacks in places like Cuba or Vietnam without having their system of global hegemony, backed by the world’s wealthiest economy and finest military, affected. The country was, after all, the planet’s “indispensible nation,” as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright proclaimed in 1998 (and other presidents and politicians have insisted ever since). The U.S. enjoyed a greater “disparity of power” over its would-be rivals than any empire ever, Yale historian Paul Kennedy announced in 2002. Certainly, it would remain “the sole superpower for decades to come,” Foreign Affairs magazine assured us just last year. During the 2016 campaign, candidate Donald Trump promised his supporters that “we’re gonna win with military… we are gonna win so much you may even get tired of winning.” In August, while announcing his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, Trump reassured the nation: “In every generation, we have faced down evil, and we have always prevailed.” In this fast-changing world, only one thing was certain: when it really counted, the United States could never lose.
The Trump White House may still be basking in the glow of America’s global supremacy but, just across the Potomac, the Pentagon has formed a more realistic view of its military superiority. In June, the Defense Department issued a major report titled on Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World, finding that the U.S. military “no longer enjoys an unassailable position versus state competitors,” and “it no longer can… automatically generate consistent and sustained local military superiority at range.” This sober assessment led the Pentagon’s top strategists to “the jarring realization that ‘we can lose.’” Increasingly, Pentagon planners find, the “self-image of a matchless global leader” provides a “flawed foundation for forward-looking defense strategy… under post-primacy conditions.” This Pentagon report also warned that, like Russia, China is “engaged in a deliberate program to demonstrate the limits of U.S. authority”; hence, Beijing’s bid for “Pacific primacy” and its “campaign to expand its control over the South China Sea.”
China’s Challenge: Indeed, military tensions between the two countries have been rising in the western Pacific since the summer of 2010. Just as Washington once used its wartime alliance with Great Britain to appropriate much of that fading empire’s global power after World War II, so Beijing began using profits from its export trade with the U.S. to fund a military challenge to its dominion over the waterways of Asia and the Pacific.
Some telltale numbers suggest the nature of the future great power competition between Washington and Beijing that could determine the course of the twenty-first century. In April 2015, for instance, the Department of Agriculture reported that the U.S. economy would grow by nearly 50% over the next 15 years, while China’s would expand by 300%, equaling or surpassing America’s around 2030.
Similarly, in the critical race for worldwide patents, American leadership in technological innovation is clearly on the wane. In 2008, the United States still held the number two spot behind Japan in patent applications with 232,000. China was, however, closing in fast at 195,000, thanks to a blistering 400% increase since 2000. By 2014, China actually took the lead in this critical category with 801,000 patents, nearly half the world’s total, compared to just 285,000 for the Americans.
With supercomputing now critical for everything from code breaking to consumer products, China’s Defense Ministry outpaced the Pentagon for the first time in 2010, launching the world’s fastest supercomputer, the Tianhe-1A. For the next six years, Beijing produced the fastest machine and last year finally won in a way that couldn’t be more crucial: with a supercomputer that had microprocessor chips made in China. By then, it also had the most supercomputers with 167 compared to 165 for the United States and only 29 for Japan.
Over the longer term, the American education system, that critical source of future scientists and innovators, has been falling behind its competitors. In 2012, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development tested half a million 15-year-olds worldwide. Those in Shanghai came in first in math and science, while those in Massachusetts, “a strong-performing U.S. state,” placed 20th in science and 27th in math. By 2015, America’s standing had declined to 25th in science and 39th in math.
But why, you might ask, should anybody care about a bunch of 15-year-olds with backpacks, braces, and attitude? Because by 2030, they will be the mid-career scientists and engineers determining whose computers survive a cyberattack, whose satellites evade a missile strike, and whose economy has the next best thing.
Rival Superpower Strategies: With its growing resources, Beijing has been laying claim to an arc of islands and waters from Korea to Indonesia long dominated by the U.S. Navy. In August 2010, after Washington expressed a “national interest” in the South China Sea and conducted naval exercises there to reinforce the claim, Beijing’s Global Times responded angrily that “the U.S.-China wrestling match over the South China Sea issue has raised the stakes in deciding who the real future ruler of the planet will be.”
Four years later, Beijing escalated its territorial claims to these waters, building a nuclear submarine facility on Hainan Island and accelerating its dredging of seven artificial atolls for military bases in the Spratly Islands. When the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled, in 2016, that these atolls gave China no territorial claim to the surrounding seas, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the decision out of hand.
To meet China’s challenge on the high seas, the Pentagon began sending a succession of carrier groups on “freedom of navigation” cruises into the South China Sea. It also started shifting spare air and sea assets to a string of bases from Japan to Australia in a bid to strengthen its strategic position along the Asian littoral. Since the end of World War II, Washington has attempted to control the strategic Eurasian landmass from a network of NATO military bases in Europe and a chain of island bastions in the Pacific. Between the “axial ends” of this vast continent, Washington has, over the past 70 years, built successive layers of military power – air and naval bases during the Cold War and more recently a string of 60 drone bases stretching from Sicily to Guam.
Simultaneously, however, China has conducted what the Pentagon in 2010 called “a comprehensive transformation of its military” meant to prepare the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “for extended-range power projection.” With the world’s “most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program,” Beijing can target “its nuclear forces throughout… most of the world, including the continental United States.” Meanwhile, accurate missiles now provide the PLA with the ability “to attack ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean.” In emerging military domains, China has begun to contest U.S. dominion over cyberspace and space, with plans to dominate “the information spectrum in all dimensions of the modern battlespace.”
China’s army has by now developed a sophisticated cyberwarfare capacity through its Unit 61398 and allied contractors that “increasingly focus… on companies involved in the critical infrastructure of the United States–its electrical power grid, gas lines, and waterworks.” After identifying that unit as responsible for a series of intellectual property thefts, Washington took the unprecedented step, in 2013, of filing criminal charges against five active-duty Chinese cyber officers.
China has already made major technological advances that could prove decisive in any future war with Washington. Instead of competing across the board, Beijing, like many late adopters of technology, has strategically chosen key areas to pursue, particularly orbital satellites, which are a fulcrum for the effective weaponization of space. As early as 2012, China had already launched 14 satellites into “three kinds of orbits” with “more satellites in high orbits and… better anti-shielding capabilities than other systems.” Four years later, Beijing announced that it was on track to “cover the whole globe with a constellation of 35 satellites by 2020,” becoming second only to the United States when it comes to operational satellite systems.
Playing catch-up, China has recently achieved a bold breakthrough in secure communications. In August 2016, three years after the Pentagon abandoned its own attempt at full-scale satellite security, Beijing launched the world’s first quantum satellite that transmits photons, believed to be “invulnerable to hacking,” rather than relying on more easily compromised radio waves. According to one scientific report, this new technology will “create a super-secure communications network, potentially linking people anywhere.” China was reportedly planning to launch 20 of the satellites should the technology prove fully successful.
To check China, Washington has been building a new digital defense network of advanced cyberwarfare capabilities and air-space robotics. Between 2010 and 2012, the Pentagon extended drone operations into the exosphere, creating an arena for future warfare unlike anything that has gone before. As early as 2020, if all goes according to plan, the Pentagon will loft a triple-tier shield of unmanned drones reaching from the stratosphere to the exosphere, armed with agile missiles, linked by an expanded satellite system, and operated through robotic controls.
Weighing this balance of forces, the RAND Corporation recently released a study, War with China, predicting that by 2025 “China will likely have more, better, and longer-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles; advanced air defenses; latest generation aircraft; quieter submarines; more and better sensors; and the digital communications, processing power, and C2 [cyber security] necessary to operate an integrated kill chain.”
In the event of all-out war, RAND suggested, the United States might suffer heavy losses to its carriers, submarines, missiles, and aircraft from Chinese strategic forces, while its computer systems and satellites would be degraded thanks to “improved Chinese cyberwar and ASAT [anti-satellite] capabilities.” Even though American forces would counterattack, their “growing vulnerability” means Washington’s victory would not be assured. In such a conflict, the think tank concluded, there might well be no “clear winner.”
Make no mistake about the weight of those words. For the first time, a top strategic think-tank, closely aligned with the U.S. military and long famous for its influential strategic analyses, was seriously contemplating a major war with China that the United States would not win.
World War III: Scenario 2030: The technology of space and cyberwarfare is so new, so untested, that even the most outlandish scenarios currently concocted by strategic planners may soon be superseded by a reality still hard to conceive. In a 2015 nuclear war exercise, the Air Force Wargaming Institute used sophisticated computer modeling to imagine “a 2030 scenario where the Air Force’s fleet of B-52s… upgraded with… improved standoff weapons” patrol the skies ready to strike. Simultaneously, “shiny new intercontinental ballistic missiles” stand by for launch. Then, in a bold tactical gambit, B-1 bombers with “full Integrated Battle Station (IBS) upgrade” slip through enemy defenses for a devastating nuclear strike.
That scenario was no doubt useful for Air Force planners, but said little about the actual future of U.S. global power. Similarly, the RAND War with China study only compared military capacities, without assessing the particular strategies either side might use to its advantage.
I might not have access to the Wargaming Institute’s computer modeling or RAND’s renowned analytical resources, but I can at least carry their work one step further by imagining a future conflict with an unfavorable outcome for the United States. As the globe’s still-dominant power, Washington must spread its defenses across all military domains, making its strength, paradoxically, a source of potential weakness. As the challenger, China has the asymmetric advantage of identifying and exploiting a few strategic flaws in Washington’s otherwise overwhelming military superiority.
For years, prominent Chinese defense intellectuals like Shen Dingli of Fudan University have rejected the idea of countering the U.S. with a big naval build-up and argued instead for “cyberattacks, space weapons, lasers, pulses, and other directed-energy beams.”Instead of rushing to launch aircraft carriers that “will be burned” by lasers fired from space, China should, Shen argued, develop advanced weapons “to make other command systems fail to work.”Although decades away from matching the full might of Washington’s global military, China could, through a combination of cyberwar, space warfare, and supercomputing, find ways to cripple U.S. military communications and thus blind its strategic forces. With that in mind, here’s one possible scenario for World War III:
It’s 11:59 p.m. on Thanksgiving Thursday in 2030. For months, tensions have been mounting between Chinese and U.S. Navy patrols in the South China Sea. Washington’s attempts to use diplomacy to restrain China have proven an embarrassing failure among long-time allies–with NATO crippled by years of diffident American support, Britain now a third-tier power, Japan functionally neutral, and other international leaders cool to Washington’s concerns after suffering its cyber-surveillance for so long. With the American economy diminished, Washington plays the last card in an increasingly weak hand, deploying six of its remaining eight carrier groups to the Western Pacific.
Instead of intimidating China’s leaders, the move makes them more bellicose. Flying from air bases in the Spratly Islands, their jet fighters soon begin buzzing U.S. Navy ships in the South China Sea, while Chinese frigates play chicken with two of the aircraft carriers on patrol, crossing ever closer to their bows.
Then tragedy strikes. At 4:00 a.m. on a foggy October night, the massive carrier USS Gerald Ford slices through aging Frigate-536 Xuchang, sinking the Chinese ship with its entire crew of 165. Beijing demands an apology and reparations. When Washington refuses, China’s fury comes fast.
At the stroke of midnight on Black Friday, as cyber-shoppers storm the portals of Best Buy for deep discounts on the latest consumer electronics from Bangladesh, Navy personnel staffing the Space Surveillance Telescope at Exmouth, Western Australia, choke on their coffees as their panoramic screens of the southern sky suddenly blip to black. Thousands of miles away at the U.S. CyberCommand’s operations center in Texas, Air Force technicians detect malicious binaries that, though hacked anonymously into American weapons systems worldwide, show the distinctive digital fingerprints of China’s People’s Liberation Army.
In what historians will later call the “Battle of Binaries,” CyberCom’s supercomputers launch their killer counter-codes. While a few of China’s provincial servers do lose routine administrative data, Beijing’s quantum satellite system, equipped with super-secure photon transmission, proves impervious to hacking. Meanwhile, an armada of bigger, faster supercomputers slaved to Shanghai’s cyberwarfare Unit 61398 blasts back, slipping into the U.S. satellite system through its antiquated microwave signals.
The first overt strike is one nobody at the Pentagon predicted. Flying at 60,000 feet above the South China Sea, several U.S. carrier-based MQ-25 Stingray drones, infected by Chinese “malware,” suddenly fire all the pods beneath their enormous delta wingspans, sending dozens of lethal missiles plunging harmlessly into the ocean, effectively disarming those formidable weapons.
Determined to fight fire with fire, the White House authorizes a retaliatory strike. Confident their satellite system is impenetrable, Air Force commanders in California transmit robotic codes to a flotilla of X-37B space drones, orbiting 250 miles above the Earth, to launch their Triple Terminator missiles at several of China’s communication satellites. There is zero response.
In near panic, the Navy orders its Zumwalt-class destroyers to fire their RIM-174 killer missiles at seven Chinese satellites in nearby geostationary orbits. The launch codes suddenly prove inoperative.
As Beijing’s viruses spread uncontrollably through the U.S. satellite architecture, the country’s second-rate supercomputers fail to crack the Chinese malware’s devilishly complex code. With stunning speed, GPS signals crucial to the navigation of American ships and aircraft worldwide are compromised.
Across the Pacific, Navy deck officers scramble for their sextants, struggling to recall long-ago navigation classes at Annapolis. Steering by sun and stars, carrier squadrons abandon their stations off the China coast and steam for the safety of Hawaii.
An angry American president orders a retaliatory strike on a secondary Chinese target, Longpo Naval Base on Hainan Island. Within minutes, the commander of Andersen Air Base on Guam launches a battery of super-secret X-51 “Waverider” hypersonic missiles that soar to 70,000 feet and then streak across the Pacific at 4,000 miles per hour–far faster than any Chinese fighter or air-to-air missile. Inside the White House situation room the silence is stifling as everyone counts down the 30 short minutes before the tactical nuclear warheads are to slam into Longpo’s hardened submarine pens, shutting down Chinese naval operations in the South China Sea. Midflight, the missiles suddenly nose-dive into the Pacific.
In a bunker buried deep beneath Tiananmen Square, President Xi Jinping’s handpicked successor, Li Keqiang, even more nationalistic than his mentor, is outraged that Washington would attempt a tactical nuclear strike on Chinese soil. When China’s State Council wavers at the thought of open war, the president quotes the ancient strategist Sun Tzu: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” Amid applause and laughter, the vote is unanimous. War it is!
Almost immediately, Beijing escalates from secret cyberattacks to overt acts. Dozens of China’s next-generation SC-19 missiles lift off for strikes on key American communications satellites, scoring a high ratio of kinetic kills on these hulking units. Suddenly, Washington loses secure communications with hundreds of military bases. U.S. fighter squadrons worldwide are grounded. Dozens of F-35 pilots already airborne are blinded as their helmet-mounted avionic displays go black, forcing them down to 10,000 feet for a clear view of the countryside. Without any electronic navigation, they must follow highways and landmarks back to base like bus drivers in the sky.
Midflight on regular patrols around the Eurasian landmass, two-dozen RQ-180 surveillance drones suddenly become unresponsive to satellite-transmitted commands. They fly aimlessly toward the horizon, crashing when their fuel is exhausted. With surprising speed, the United States loses control of what its Air Force has long called the “ultimate high ground.”
With intelligence flooding the Kremlin about crippled American capacity, Moscow, still a close Chinese ally, sends a dozen Severodvinsk-class nuclear submarines beyond the Arctic Circle bound for permanent, provocative patrols between New York and Newport News. Simultaneously, a half-dozen Grigorovich-class missile frigates from Russia’s Black Sea fleet, escorted by an undisclosed number of attack submarines, steam for the western Mediterranean to shadow the U.S. Sixth fleet.
Within a matter of hours, Washington’s strategic grip on the axial ends of Eurasia–the keystone to its global dominion for the past 85 years–is broken. In quick succession, the building blocks in the fragile architecture of U.S. global power start to fall.
Every weapon begets its own nemesis. Just as musketeers upended mounted knights, tanks smashed trench works, and dive bombers sank battleships, so China’s superior cybercapability had blinded America’s communication satellites that were the sinews of its once-formidable military apparatus, giving Beijing a stunning victory in this war of robotic militaries. Without a single combat casualty on either side, the superpower that had dominated the planet for nearly a century is defeated in World War III.
Alfred W. McCoy is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of the now-classic book The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, which probed the conjuncture of illicit narcotics and covert operations over 50 years, and the just-published In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books) from which this piece is adapted.