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The latest news on Defense from Business Insider

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    Shahab-3 missile Iran

    Iran will not renegotiate its nuclear agreement with world powers, even if it faces new U.S. sanctions after Donald Trump becomes president, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said on Sunday.

    Trump, who will take office on Friday, has threatened to either scrap the agreement, which curbs Iran's nuclear program and lifts sanctions against it, or seek a better deal.

    "There will be no renegotiation and the (agreement) will not be reopened," said Araqchi, Iran's top nuclear negotiator at the talks that led to the agreement in 2015, quoted by the state news agency IRNA.

    "We and many analysts believe that the (agreement) is consolidated. The new U.S. administration will not be able to abandon it," Araqchi told a news conference in Tehran, held a year after the deal took effect.

    "Nuclear talks with America are over and we have nothing else to discuss," he added.

    "It's quite likely that the U.S. Congress or the next administration will act against Iran and imposes new sanctions."

    Under Iran's agreement with the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China, most U.N. sanctions were lifted a year ago. But Iran is still subject to an U.N. arms embargo and other restrictions, which are not technically part of the nuclear agreement.

    SEE ALSO: How Iran made the US look weak with a tiny, outdated navy and some old ballistic missiles

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: These are the secretive 18-wheelers the US government uses to transport nukes on America's roads

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    James MattisRetired Gen. James Mattis sailed through his confirmation hearing Thursday as a hardened warrior who cherishes allies, prefers diplomacy to conflict, deeply distrusts Russian President Vladimir Putin, and promises to speak his mind “frankly and forcefully” whenever he disagrees with President Trump.

    To many Trump skeptics, this has always been Mattis’ main appeal—that his street cred as a retired four-star Marine general and a noted scholar of history and strategy would serve as restraining influence to Trump’s unpredictability and to the extreme belligerence of the president-elect’s national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

    The appeal is so strong that most senators are willing to overlook the law prohibiting officers from serving as secretary of defense until seven years after they’ve retired. Mattis retired just four years ago, and so required a waiver to take office.

    Congress has passed such a waiver just once, in 1950, when President Harry Truman nominated five-star Gen. George Marshall to the position. After Thursday’s hearing, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a waiver for Mattis by a margin of 24–3. Two hours later, the full Senate voted the same way, 81–17.

    Sen. John McCain, the committee’s chairman, cited testimony from earlier this week by two scholars on civil-military relations who strongly supported the law barring recently retired officers from taking the job but also strongly supported making an exception for Mattis.

    One of those scholars, Eliot Cohen, a noted author and professor, former State Department official, and, during the presidential campaign, an instigator of the “Never Trump” movement launched by conservative national-security specialists, said at this earlier hearing that Mattis “would be a stabilizing and moderating force, preventing wildly stupid, dangerous, or illegal things from happening.”

    Mattis lived up to that image at his confirmation hearing on Thursday. Contrary to Trump’s disparagement of NATO as obsolete, Mattis called it “the most successful military alliance in modern world history,” adding, “If we did not have NATO today, we would have to create it.”

    Asked if the United States should refuse to honor its commitment to NATO members that hadn’t spent a lot of money on their own defense (another position that Trump has taken), Mattis vigorously disagreed. He also said that he’d discussed this subject with Trump, who was “open” to hearing Mattis’ view and asked follow-up questions.

    Performing tactical movements latvia nato close air support

    At particular odds with Trump’s benign view toward the Kremlin, Mattis called Putin “an adversary in key areas” whose main goal is to disrupt the North Atlantic alliance. Mattis said he’s fine with Trump’s desire to engage with Putin. “Even in the worst years of the Cold War, we had engagement,” Mattis said. “But I have very low expectations.” When he was asked to name the key threats to the United States, he put Russia at the top of the list.

    On other matters of difference with the president-elect, Mattis said that he has a “very high level of confidence” in the US intelligence community; that, while he regards the Iran nuclear deal as “an imperfect agreement,” which he would not have signed, he is opposed to scrapping it; and that allies are crucial to the success of any foreign policy or military operation. “Nations with allies thrive. Nations without allies don’t,” he said.

    He disagreed with some of his most supportive senators on some issues as well. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, asked Mattis whether he regards Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Mattis demurred, saying Tel Aviv is the capital, “because that’s where all the government offices are,” and said he would abide by long-standing US policy, which holds the same position. He also disagreed with one senator’s view that the United States currently has no strategy to resist ISIS in Syria, saying that we do have a strategy but that he would “energize” it on “a more aggressive timetable.”

    tel aviv

    Mattis did not fully address concerns, expressed by many in recent weeks, that his experience as a military commander, however admirable, might not translate to the skills necessary to run a massive bureaucracy like the Department of Defense, with its $600 billion–plus budget—nor whether he could look past his deep knowledge of military tactics and strategy to encompass a broad view of national-security policy.

    This concern underlies the principle of civilian control: The military is supposed to execute the policies laid out by the president through the Cabinet, including the secretary of defense. At one point in the hearing, Mattis unwittingly underscored the problem, saying that he would give the president and the Congress his “professional military judgment.” That is usually the job of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not the secretary of defense.

    Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut, told Mattis, “If there was ever a case for a waiver to that principle [of civilian control], it is you, at this moment in our history.” Nonetheless, Blumenthal was one of the three senators who voted against granting him a waiver. The others were also Democrats: Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. (This was Warren’s first hearing as a member of the Armed Services Committee, which some speculate she joined as a way of expanding her portfolio for higher ambitions.)

    Neither Gillibrand nor Warren so much as brought up the issue in their questioning of Mattis. Warren even encouraged Mattis to push his views forcefully in the White House, saying, “We’re counting on you.”

    female marine

    During the hearing, Mattis changed or at least modified some of his controversial views. In the past, he has opposed integrating women into infantry units alongside men, concerned that sexual appetites would cut into their prowess as fighters. At the hearing, he said, “I have no plan to oppose women in any aspect of our military,” adding that in 2003, the division he commanded in Iraq had “hundreds of Marines who happened to be women … right in the front lines along with everyone else.”

    He did say, “If we are going to execute policy like this, we’d better train our leaders to handle all problems.” He also expressed no problem with gays serving in the military. He said, “I’ve never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with.” Asked point blank whether there was anything about women or gays that made him think they could not be part of a “lethal force,” he said, “No.”

    He also seemed to have undergone a change in his views on the “triad”—the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and bombers—that has long made up the US nuclear arsenal. In the past, he has favored the dismantlement of the land-based ICBMs, viewing them as destabilizing.

    Many arms-control advocates have noted that, because ICBMs are at once the arsenal’s most accurate and most vulnerable weapons, they would be both useful for a first strike and the natural targets of an enemy first strike. As a result, in a crisis, especially during a false alarm, their very existence might encourage one side or the other to launch a first strike, if only to pre-empt the other side’s first strike.

    An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California at 11:01 p.m. on February 25, 2016. REUTERS/Ian Dudley/U.S. Air Force photo/Handout via Reuters

    However, at Thursday’s hearing, he said that ICBMs add another layer of deterrence to the nuclear balance. Because they are based underground, in blast-resistant silos, an adversary would have to fire two, three, or even four warheads to ensure destroying each silo—using up so many of his own missiles that he’d be dissuaded from launching an attack in the first place.

    In recent years, Air Force officers have devised this argument as a rationale for keeping ICBMs. Many civilian strategists—and officers of the Marine Corps, which has never had nuclear weapons—find the argument far-fetched, noting that the presence of nuclear missile–carrying submarines (prowling, undetectable, under the ocean’s surface) and bombers (which can take off at a moment’s notice and be recalled back to their bases, if necessary) are deterrent enough to prevent a nuclear war.

    Though the issue did not come up at the hearing, Mattis has reportedly had several run-ins with the Trump transition team, rejecting all of the names they’ve sent him as possible deputy, under, and assistant secretaries of defense. Given Mattis’ lack of managerial experience, the position of deputy secretary—who usually runs the Pentagon’s day-to-day operations—is particularly important. The Trump team is said to be mulling the idea of keeping the present deputy secretary, Robert Work, in the position, at least for a while.

    SEE ALSO: China expert: Tillerson's plan for the South China Sea would 'certainly end up in a shooting war with China'

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    Nigerian Air Force Dassault Dornier Alpha Jet

    A Nigerian Air Force fighter jet on a mission against Boko Haram extremists mistakenly bombed a refugee camp Tuesday, killing more than 100 refugees and wounding aid workers, a Borno state official said. A Red Cross worker said 20 volunteers with the aid group had been killed.

    The state government official, who was helping to coordinate the evacuation of wounded from the remote area by helicopters, spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

    Military commander Maj. Gen. Lucky Irabor confirmed the accidental bombardment in northeast Rann, near the border with Cameroon.

    This is believed to be the first time Nigeria's military has admitted to making such a mistake.

    Among the wounded were two soldiers and Nigerians working for Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross, Irabor said.

    An ICRC employee told the AP that 20 Red Cross volunteers were among the dead. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to give information to reporters.

    Doctors Without Borders said its team based in Rann had counted 50 bodies and treated 120 wounded. A statement from spokesman Etienne l'Hermitte urged authorities to facilitate land and air evacuations, saying, "Our medical and surgical teams in Cameroon and Chad are ready to treat wounded patients. We are in close contact with our teams, who are in shock following the event."

    afp boko harams shekau wounded in air strike nigeria

    Irabor said he ordered the mission based on information that Boko Haram insurgents were gathering, along with geographic coordinates. It was too early to say if a tactical error was made, he said.

    The general, who is the theater commander for counterinsurgency operations in northeast Nigeria, said the Air Force would not deliberately target civilians but there will be an investigation.

    Villagers in the past have reported some civilian casualties in near-daily bombardments in northeastern Nigeria.

    Some of the nearly 300 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014 and freed last year have said three of their classmates were killed by Air Force bombardments, according to the freed girls' parents.

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    Dennis Muilenburg

    Boeing Co Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg said he had a "very productive" meeting with President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday and was encouraged by progress in talks on the Air Force One replacement fleet and on fighter planes.

    "We discussed Air Force One, we discussed fighter aircraft," Muilenburg told reporters after the hour-long meeting. "We made some great progress on simplifying requirements on Air Force One, streamlining the process ... all that is going to provide a better airplane at a lower cost. I'm pleased with the progress there."

    SEE ALSO: F-35 pilot: It's 'preposterous' to think an upgraded F-18 could do the F-35's job

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    NOW WATCH: The story of Lisa Brennan-Jobs, the daughter Steve Jobs claimed wasn't his

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    navy seal training

    The assessment and selection of special operators is arguably the most mythical training available in the United States military. Rumors fly around the barracks about how hard it is or what percentage will actually graduate.

    There is always that guy whose uncle was a DeltaNinjaSeal in Desert Storm who told him that, “the final test is a two-way live fire where the only standard is … survival!” And of course, there is never a shortage of people who believe that.

    Ridiculous tall tales aside, anyone who attempts these harrowing courses will gain the respect of his or her peers. Those who actually make it become member to special units who are revered in both books and movies, known for seemingly super-human deeds in pursuit of our nation’s most dangerous missions. But for the majority of service members, simply being trained in their job specialty is all that is required of them to be assigned to a normal unit. So why do these elite units have an additional selection process?

    The heralded legions that count themselves member to the U.S. Special Operations Command consider people to be their most important asset. No rifle or night-vision device can make up for the intelligence, physical conditioning, and intestinal fortitude that a carefully assessed and well-selected operator brings to the table.

    Finding the right person is of paramount importance, as these same men and women will go on to execute the sharp end of American foreign policy in small teams with little supervision in the most dangerous and austere environments on Earth.

    army ranger swamp trainingHowever, each special operations unit has different responsibilities, and, therefore, must select the right person for their particular mission. What makes a good Ranger doesn’t necessarily make a good Special Forces NCO; and what makes a bad SEAL might actually make for a good Raider in the Marine Corps. It’s for this reason that the cadre for these selection courses are always veterans of the unit they select for. Only they know exactly what kind of mentality and skills are needed.

    Because of each unit needing a different type of person, each selection must be structured differently in order to highlight the strengths and weaknesses that matter to the unit. For example, Special Forces Assessment and Selection, or SFAS, is attended by both enlisted and officer ranks and is three weeks long, focusing on individual land navigation and long team movements with little to no sleep.  

    The Navy’s Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL, commonly referred to as BUD/S, while still attended by both officers and enlisted, is 24 weeks long and places more importance on physical standards that steadily increase with an emphasis on being comfortable in the water. Rangers on the other hand, have senior NCOs and officers attend a different selection than the lower enlisted. Both selections focus on different attributes in their candidates, but they all must meet the same Ranger standards.

    Of course, there are commonalities across the board for all selections, such as needing a high level of physical fitness. Because special operations are often physically demanding, a selection course must take this into account. Candidates are routinely subjected to hours of physical exercise with the goal of weeding out the physically and mentally weak while simultaneously showing just how far the body can go under extreme duress. Selections are a feat of endurance; if you don’t show up prepared you will be found out in short order.

    navy seals bud/s trainingWhat many misunderstand during their preparation is that it’s not all about the published minimum physical standards. You need to meet (and exceed) tests like being able to swim two miles in open ocean in under 70 minutes or run five miles in under 40 minutes, but the real test is in the daily “smoke” sessions. These can last for hours, even through an entire night.

    They include standard fare like push-ups, flutter kicks, and lunges. But, they also will usually include lesser-known forms of punishment like doing jumping jacks while staying in a squat position, otherwise known as “the little man in the woods.” With the cadre’s verbal encouragement for candidates to quit on top of all of that, it’s enough to make all but the most motivated drop out.

    Regardless of the selection course, every candidate wants to make the cut, and every instructor wants to find the right person for the job. For most candidates, those two goals are at odds with each other. Elite units would not be very elite if they took every person who tried out. The vast majority who throw their hat in the ring will never see graduation day.

    As the former Green Beret Barry Sadler once sang, “Silver wings upon their chest, these are men, America’s best. One hundred men will test today, but only three win the Green Beret.”

    SEE ALSO: Step into the boneyard, where US Air Force birds go to die

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    Boeing advanced super hornet f-18

    President-elect Donald Trump caused a genuine uproar in the combat-aviation community when he tweeted in December, "Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!"

    The idea that an F/A-18 Super Hornet could be "comparable" to the F-35 met swift and intense condemnation, and Lockheed Martin quickly lost billions in value on its stock.

    "No, Mr. Trump, You Can't Replace F-35 With A 'Comparable' F-18" a headline at Breaking Defense said.

    "You can't replace the F-35 with an F-18 any more than you can replace an aircraft carrier with a cruise ship," a headline at Popular Science said.

    Lt. Col. David Berke, a former commander of the US Marine Corps' first operational F-35B squadron, told Business Insider the idea of upgrading a legacy fighter to do the F-35's job was plainly "preposterous."

    Virtually everyone pointed to a single aspect of the F-35 that the F/A-18 lacked: stealth.

    But the US and other countries already have in their sights a modern update on the F/A-18 that is meant to complement the F-35. The update may be poised to deliver even more capability than Lockheed Martin's Joint Strike Fighter in some areas, even without being as stealthy.

    Dan Gillian, Boeing's vice president of F/A-18 and EA-18 programs, told Business Insider that even with the coming F-35C naval variant, US carrier air wings would still field versions of the F/A-18 into the 2040s. The company is planning considerable updates that will focus on "addressing the gaps" in naval aviation.

    Gillian and the Boeing team call it the Advanced Super Hornet, a modern update on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which itself was an update on the original F/A-18 Hornet. Gillian says Boeing designed the Super Hornet "from the beginning in an evolutionary way with lots of room for growth in power, cooling, and weight so it could adapt to changes over the years."

    F-18 US airstrikes

    "We have a legacy with the F-18 — on time on cost," Gillian said, which one could contrast to the F-35 program, which has faced constant production overruns in cost and time. In fact, a recent report says the Navy's version of the F-35 just hit yet another setback that could take years and billions to fix.

    Gillian says Boeing could start fielding Advanced Super Hornets by the early 2020s at the latest, while some limited contracts to bring elements of the Advanced Super Hornet are already underway. So even though the designs of the F-35 and the F/A-18 reflect different missions, they certainly are comparable in terms of price, availability, and capability.

    So what does a 2017 update of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet look like?

    Boeing advanced super hornet f-18

    "When we talk about the Advanced Super Hornet package, it can be delivered to a build of new airplanes and it can be retrofitted to existing airframes," Gillian said.

    "An airplane that I'm building today off the line has some systems that have matured over time that a Super Hornet would not have," he added, saying there would essentially be no difference between a 2017 Advanced Super Hornet and a Super Hornet plucked off an aircraft carrier and brought up to date.

    The physical characteristics of a fully decked out Advanced Super Hornet would be as follows:

    • Shoulder-mounted conformal fuel tanks to carry 3,500 pounds of fuel and reduce drag. These fuel tanks could "extend the reach about 125 nautical miles," meaning the planes can "either go faster or carry more," according to Gillian.
    • An infrared search and track radar, which would be the first such capability included on a US fighter jet since the F-14 Tomcat. This will allow the Advanced Super Hornets to counter enemy stealth capability and to get a read on heat-emitting entities without emitting any radar signal of their own. "There was a fixation on stealth attributes," Gillian said of fifth-gen fighters, "which is an important attribute for the next 25 years, but tactical fighters are designed for stealth in one part of the spectrum, all planes emit heat."
    • Advanced electronic warfare capabilities. Currently, the F-18 family leads the US military in EW platforms with the Growler, an EW version of the Super Hornet in which Boeing has "taken out the gun and installed more EW equipment ... Instead of missiles on the wing tips it has a large sensing pods," Gillian said. The Navy has scheduled the F-35C to eventually carry the advanced EW pod, but the initial generation of F-35s will have to rely on Growlers for EW attacks. The Advanced Super Hornet will have EW self-protection, but not the full suite present on the Growler.
    • An advanced cockpit system with a new 19-inch display. Basically "a big iPad for the airplane, allowing the pilot to manage all the information and data that’s out there," Gillian said, comparing its utility to the F-35's display.
    • Improved avionics and computing power as well as increased ability to network to receive targeting data from platforms like the F-35 or the E-2 Hawkeye. The Advanced Super Hornet would also feature an improved active electronically scanned array radar.

    Further enhancements still to be considered by the US Navy for Advanced Super Hornets include the following:

    • An enclosed weapons pod would make the plane more aerodynamic while also cutting down on the plane's radar cross section. Combined with the form-fitting fuel tanks, the Advanced Super Hornet could cut its radar signature by up to 50%.
    • An improved engine could increase fuel efficiency and performance. Boeing hasn't yet begun earnestly working toward this, and it could add to the overall cost of the project significantly.

    Hypothetically, Advanced Super Hornets could field IRST before F-35Cs come online. Growlers will also serve in the vital role of EW attack craft, without which the F-35 cannot do its job as a stealth penetrator.

    So while an Advanced Super Hornet will never be comparable to the F-35 in all aspects, it could certainly develop some strengths that the F-35 lacks.

    Additionally, Gillian said the Advanced Super Hornets would not cost much more than the current F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, which run about $70 million apiece. Even if that price rose by $10 million, it would still be lower than that of the cheapest expected F-35s, which come in at $85 million.

    Conclusion: Could Boeing create an F/A-18 'comparable' to the F-35?

    f 35b

    "The Advanced Super Hornet is really a collection of systems and design changes that when implemented achieve a significantly different capability for the air wing," said Gillian, who stressed that the Super Hornet and Growler platforms were "well positioned" to improve in scope and capability over time.

    Gillian made it clear, however, that the Advanced Super Hornet program had been, since its inception, meant to accompany the F-35, with carrier air wings consisting of three squadrons of Super Hornets and one squadron of F-35s into the 2040s.

    The US Navy has contracts already underway to update its existing Super Hornet fleet with elements of the Advanced Super Hornet package, and it seems the US will end up with both Advanced Super Hornets and F-35s, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

    The F/A-18, not designed with all-aspect stealth in mind, will most likely never serve as a penetrating aircraft for heavily contested airspace, but its future onboard America's aircraft carriers is well defined for decades to come.

    But with Boeing's field record of delivering F/A-18 projects on time and on budget, and the US Navy left waiting by overrun after overrun in the F-35 program, the two planes are starting to look like apples and oranges — both good choices. Choosing which to buy and when may simply come down to what is available on the market.

    SEE ALSO: The most expensive F-35 variant has hit another major snag that could take years to fix

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    NOW WATCH: This is how pilots train to fly the F-35 — America’s most expensive fighter jet

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    Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who revealed a massive domestic spying apparatus in the US by leaking stolen documents as he fled to China and Russia, may soon be on the path to Russian citizenship.

    Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden's Russian lawyer, told RIA Novosti news agency that Snowden's permit to remain in Russia had been extended by three years, and that next year he could apply for Russian citizenship, The Guardian reports.

    Snowden remains in contact with Russian intelligence services, according to the Associated Press, and has been a vocal supporter of WikiLeaks, which itself is linked to Russia. 

    On Tuesday, when Chelsea Manning, a former US Army intelligence analyst and fellow WikiLeaks whistleblower had her sentence commuted by Obama, White House spokesperson John Earnest said the following of Snowden's case:

    "Mr. Snowden fled into the arms of an adversary, and has sought refuge in a country that most recently made a concerted effort to undermine confidence in our democracy."

    In light of this stance, it seems unlikely that Obama, or any US president, would consider pardoning Snowden until he returns to the US to face charges as Manning did. 

    SEE ALSO: Obama commutes WikiLeaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning's sentence — she'll be free in 5 months

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    NOW WATCH: These are the secretive 18-wheelers the US government uses to transport nukes on America's roads

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    f 22 arctic badass

    The US Air Force's F-22 Raptor's combination of stealth and performance makes it arguably the most lethal combat plane in the world, but it's not without its weaknesses.

    As War Is Boring's David Archibald notes, the F-22 sorely lacks infrared-search-and-track (IRST) sensors, as well as cheek-mounted, side-looking radars.

    Archibald credits these shortcomings to the plane's design period, when the US Air Force placed a budget cap on developing the avionics for the Raptor.

    This means that the Raptor is blind to the infrared spectrum, which has extreme value to fighter jets as all planes and missiles emit heat. The lack of side-looking radars limits how the plane can guide missiles flying at more than 90 degrees away from the plane's nose. 

    Meanwhile, Russia's best competition for the F-22, the  Su-35 Flanker, does have IRST and cheek-mounted radars. 

    For the Flanker, the IRST provides a vital but limited tool against the ultra-stealthy F-22. As the Flanker has almost no hope of detecting the F-22 by conventional radar, it must rely on finding the F-22's heat signature; but, as combat aviation expert Justin Bronk previously told Business Insider, looking for fifth-generation aircraft in the open skies with IRST is like "looking through a drinking straw."

    The lack of side-looking radars may prove to be a more enduring difficulty for the Raptor, however. Former F-22 Raptor pilot Lt. Col. David Berke told Business Insider that he'd avoid a close-in, turning fight if possible.

    Sukhoi_Su 35S_at_MAKS 2011_airshow

    "Just because I knew I could outmaneuver an enemy, my objective wouldn't be to get in a turning fight and kill him," Berke said.

    However, cheek-mounted radars have utility beyond dogfights, and by requiring the pilot to point his nose at a target to guide a missile, the plane has essentially handcuffed the pilot who could be doing other tasks. 

    SEE ALSO: Boeing has an updated F-18 in the works — here’s how it's 'comparable' to the F-35

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    Donald Trump James Mattis

    The Senate Armed Services Committee has overwhelmingly approved President-elect Donald Trump's pick for defense secretary.

    The Republican-led panel voted 26-1 Wednesday to recommend that the full Senate consider the choice of retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to run the Pentagon.

    Mattis retired from military service in 2013 after a 41-year career in uniform.

    Congress last week approved legislation that grants a one-time exception for Mattis from the law that bars former service members who have been out of uniform for less than seven years from holding the top Pentagon job. The restriction is meant to preserve civilian control of the military.

    The committee's vote means that when Mattis is formally nominated by Trump the appointment will be sent directly to the Senate for a confirmation vote.

    SEE ALSO: The 5 biggest takeaways from Gen. James Mattis' confirmation hearing

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    Senegalese army senegal military

    Senegal's forces are at the Gambian border and will enter at midnight if the veteran president, Yahya Jammeh, refuses to relinquish power, the Senegalese army told Reuters on Wednesday.

    Jammeh, who lost a Dec. 1 election to opposition leader Adama Barrow, says he will not step down, citing irregularities in the vote. His mandate is due to end at midnight (midnight GMT).

    "We are ready and are awaiting the deadline at midnight. If no political solution is found, we will step in," said Colonel Abdou Ndiaye, speaking for the Senegalese army.

    The Nigerian Air Force said it had deployed to Senegal in case it was needed. Nigeria is part of the West African bloc ECOWAS, which has threatened Jammeh with sanctions or military intervention if he does not step down.

    Senegal's statement raised the prospect of armed confrontation between forces loyal to the president, who has ruled Gambia for 22 years, and Senegal, which surrounds the tiny riverside country on three sides.

    Senegal circulated a draft resolution to the 15-member U.N. Security Council that would give "full support to the ECOWAS in its commitment to take all necessary measures to ensure the respect of the will of the people of The Gambia".

    "The end has come. Accept it," Halifa Sallah, spokesman for Barrow, told a news conference in Banjul on Wednesday.

    "The coalition did not want to go to power stepping over dead bodies," he said, at a beachside hotel surrounded by palm trees where a few tourists remained despite multiple travel warnings.

    "What can make that possible is for the president to concede."

    Barrow to take oath

    Gambia President Yahya Jammeh and his wife Zineb Jammeh

    Sallah said Barrow, who is in Senegal, could not be sworn in at the national stadium, as originally planned, but that he would take the oath of office at an undisclosed place.

    Diplomats said Barrow could be sworn in at the Gambian embassy in Senegal, which is technically part of Gambian territory.

    Jammeh declared a state of emergency on Tuesday, while on Wednesday the National Assembly passed a resolution to enable him to remain in office for three months.

    Gambia has had only two rulers since independence in 1965. Jammeh seized power in a coup and his government has gained a reputation among ordinary Gambians and human rights activists for torturing and killing opponents.

    The draft, seen by Reuters, would endorse the decision of ECOWAS and the African Union to recognize Barrow. It also called on Gambia's security forces to protect lives and property and serve the elected authorities.

    It was not immediately clear when Senegal planned to put the draft resolution to a vote. Some diplomats said U.N. Security Council approval was not needed for an ECOWAS military intervention if Barrow requested help.

    Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz arrived in Gambia late on Wednesday for last-minute talks ahead of the deadline, Gambian state television said.

    Thousands flee


    Few people expected Jammeh to lose the election, and the result was greeted with joy by many in his country, and by democracy advocates across the continent, particularly when Jammeh initially said he would accept the result and step down.

    Barrow was examining the implications of the assembly's resolution and the state of emergency, given the constitutional requirement for a handover and the need to maintain peace, Sallah told Reuters.

    Jammeh's decision to backtrack has unleashed turmoil, and at least eight ministers have resigned from his government.

    At least 26,000 people have fled from Gambia to Senegal fearing unrest, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Wednesday, citing Senegalese government figures.

    "Up until the night of the 16th there were 26,000 people ... The flow has increased sharply since then," said Helene Caux, regional information officer for the UNHCR. She said up to 80 percent were children accompanied by women.

    "Senegal has informed us that they have the capacity to take in 50,000 refugees in the short term and is making plans to accept up to 100,000," Caux said.

    Tour operator Thomas Cook <TCG. L> started flying nearly 1,000 holidaymakers home on Wednesday. It said on its website it was laying on extra flights in the next 48 hours to remove 985 package tour customers.

    It was also trying to contact a further 2,500 "flight only" tourists in Gambia to arrange for their departure on the earliest available flight, it said in a statement.

    Gambia's economy relies on one main crop, peanuts, and tourism. Its beaches are popular with European holidaymakers seeking a winter break.

    SEE ALSO: A letter from the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks has been delivered to President Obama

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    Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko makes an address in Kiev, Ukraine, December 19, 2016. Mykhailo Markiv/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

    Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called for a worldwide effort to counter the threat of Russian cyber warfare and urged the United States to "be great again" by demonstrating leadership on issues such as global security.

    U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's pledge to improve ties with the Kremlin and open admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin has put Ukraine, whose Crimea region was annexed by Russia in 2014, under the spotlight.

    Poroshenko played down speculation that Washington could backtrack on its support for Kiev, noting that Trump had said publicly he would stick to U.S. obligations and there had been "promising" statements by nominees to his cabinet.

    "That gives us a lot more optimism for the future," Poroshenko told Reuters on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday, adding he already had a visit planned to meet the new U.S. president "in a few months".

    Poroshenko said joint global efforts were needed to halt Russian aggression, both military and cyber:

    "There is a global cyber war of Russia against (the) whole world, there is lots of evidence. This is a global danger and the world should be together to fight this danger."

    Ukraine's utility Ukrenergo told Reuters on Wednesday in Kiev that a cyber attack was behind a Dec 17-18 power blackout in the capital city.

    Ukrenergo did not say who was behind the incident, although Ukrainian security services blamed Russian cyber attacks for similar power outages in December 2015. The Kremlin has denied any involvement in cyber attacks on Ukraine..

    Moscow is also alleged to have sought to influence the U.S. election by hacking Democratic political groups, something Russia has dismissed.

    "The same way as Russian propaganda is an element of Russian hybrid war, cyber (warfare) is an element of the Russian hybrid war, no matter if it's in Germany or United States," the Ukrainian president said.

    Question of security

    Ukraine army

    Poroshenko also stressed the importance of NATO as a bulwark against Moscow after Trump stirred unease in Europe by calling the military alliance "obsolete".

    "NATO, mainly this is not a question of money, it is a question of security. Russian aggression demonstrated again there is no other security system but NATO which was effective to stop the aggression," he said.

    And to demonstrate its role as a global leader, the U.S. would need to establish trans-Atlantic unity.

    "America should be great again," he said in a reference to Trump's campaign catchphrase.

    Poroshenko also said that Ukraine expected to get clearance for visa-free travel to the European Union for its citizens within a "very few" weeks after meeting the bloc's requirements.

    An agreement reached last month after weeks of stalling has yet to come into effect

    "This is a direct obligation of the EU....We are waiting for the very few moments or weeks for finishing the paperwork for these things and launching," he said.

    Poroshenko is also confident of getting Crimea back from Russia, which denies sending troops or military equipment into Ukraine. Kiev this month filed a lawsuit at the United Nations' highest court demanding that Russia halt support for pro-Moscow separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine..

    Asked whether Ukraine would ever regain Crimea, Poroshenko said: "I have no doubt. This is Ukrainian territory, Ukrainian people. This was brutal violation of international law."


    (Editing by Alexander Smith)

    SEE ALSO: Edward Snowden could soon be on the path to Russian citizenship

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    TAbu Ghraib prisonhe U.S. Department of Defense must release a cache of photos showing how Army personnel treated detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison and other sites in Iraq and Afghanistan, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday.

    U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in Manhattan said the release was proper because departing Defense Secretary Ash Carter failed to show why publishing the photos would endanger Americans deployed outside the United States.

    Hellerstein's decision is a victory for the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil and veterans rights groups whose lawsuit seeking the photos under the federal Freedom of Information Act began in 2004.

    Photos depicting abuse at Abu Ghraib began to emerge in 2004, with some detainees claiming to have endured physical and sexual abuse, electric shocks and mock executions.

    The number of photos sought in the lawsuit has not been disclosed but has been estimated at roughly 2,000, according to the Congressional Record and court papers.

    "Those photos, representing a sad episode in our history, are a matter of great public interest and historical importance, which should not, in a democracy like ours, be shielded from public view," said Lawrence Lustberg, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "The court has wisely reaffirmed our nation's commitment to open government."

    A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan, whose office defended Carter's decision, declined to comment.

    After Hellerstein in March 2015 ordered the release of additional photos, Carter allowed the release of 198 but kept the remainder under wraps, citing a review of a "representative sample" by four high-ranking generals.

    Abu Ghraib Prison

    In Wednesday's decision, Hellerstein said the U.S. troop presence in Iraq had fallen to about 5,000 from more than 100,000 at the start of the Obama administration, and that those remaining now serve as advisers rather than in combat.

    The judge said that while risks remained, including that portions of Iraq had been "overrun" by the Islamic State, he could not blindly accept withholding the remaining photos.

    "I take seriously the level of deference owed to the executive branch in the realm of national security decision making," he wrote. "My complaint is that the executive has failed to articulate the reasons supporting its conclusion that release of the photos would endanger Americans deployed abroad."

    Hellerstein first ordered the release of photos in 2005, but Congress later authorized withholding photos whose release could endanger Americans.

    The case is American Civil Liberties Union et al v. Department of Defense et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 04-04151.

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    f 35b japan marines.JPG

    The US just put China on notice by making the first-ever permanent forward deployment of US Marine Corps F-35Bs to Iwakuna, Japan.

    But while the plane has revolutionary radar-evading capability, China has some tricks up its sleeve as well. 

    The F-35B has only just gone online with initial operational capability. Basing them in Asia, where China and the incoming Trump administration have already butted heads and borne their teeth at each other, shows that the US means business when it comes to a balance of power in the Pacific.

    “The arrival of the F-35B embodies our commitment to the defense of Japan and the regional-security of the Pacific,” said Maj. Gen. Russell Sanborn, the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing Commanding General, in a Marine Corps statement. “We are bringing the most advanced technology to the Pacific to respond to the wide range of missions we take part in and provide greater support to our regional allies.”

    But while the F-35 certainly does represent a technological marvel, and the best, most complete system the US military has to offer in terms of air power, it has an insanely challenging workload ahead of it in the South China Sea. 

    Dr. Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australia Strategic Policy Institute, told Business Insider that the Chinese have long been working on ways to counter the F-35's revolutionary abilities with military installations in the South China Sea.


    "The Chinese are using multiple radar systems that are networked in," said Davis, who explained that even though the F-35's very low observable characteristics mean that a group of radars can't exactly zero in on it.

    The expansive array of capabilities China has deployed in the South China Sea form a counter-stealth network. "Counter stealth is not effective enough to pick up a stealth aircraft and track it, but can give you a general idea of where that aircraft is," said Davis.

    Hughes Reef south china sea csis

    State-of-the-art counter-stealth systems use multiphase radars and microwaves to "localize the area of a stealth aircraft but not track it," said Davis. And while the US has been leaps and bounds ahead of the competition in terms of fielding stealth aircraft, China and Russia have made impressive progress in countering that stealth.

    Indeed, Beijing has reportedly even come close to cracking an engineering problem that could render traditional stealth aircraft irrelevant — quantum radar. In September, the South China Morning Post reported that a Chinese military official said China has developed a new form of radar that can detect stealth planes up to 60 miles away. Not only that, but the radar cannot be spoofed with modern technology. 

    quantum entanglement

    The development of the radar, which uses quantum entanglement to detect objects regardless of their composition or shape, has been doubted by many in the science community. However, Dirk Englund, a quantum physicist at MIT, told Business Insider that the radar development was "credible."

    It's likely the Chinese have overstated the radar's progress, but Englund notes that "China actually has some receivers that are as large as the side of a building. Even a small signal can be picked up."

    "We're in a bit of a race here," said Davis. "Stealth aircraft have to continually develop their capabilities to offset counter-stealth systems ... There's a constant battle between stealth vs counter stealth."

    SEE ALSO: Boeing has an updated F-18 in the works — here's how it's 'comparable' to the F-35

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    nuclear accident

    "Sometimes, stuff happens..." is the title of a photo in a slideshow on "challenging design projects" from Sandia National Laboratories. The image appears to show a nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile that's been dropped off a trailer and run over by a truck, two experts told Business Insider, raising concerns about the possibility of an accident involving a nuclear weapon.

    Let's take a close look at the picture:

    nuclear accident skitch

    The Air Force told Business Insider the photo was dated, as the uniforms worn by airmen in the picture were phased out in 2011. It said it conducted an internal investigation, but it shared no conclusions with Business Insider.

    Officials at Sandia said the photo was at least 15 years old and that they are "confident that what you see there is either a training aid or a non-nuclear cruise missile." However, Sandia refused to establish how it knew the missile was non-nuclear. Sandia said it didn't know when or where the picture was taken or what happened in the photo.

    "By putting that picture in the presentation about nuclear-weapon safety, the obvious implication is that this was an accident involving a nuclear weapon,"Stephen Schwartz, an independent nuclear-weapons policy analyst and consultant who wrote "Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of US Nuclear Weapons Since 1940," told Business Insider. Schwartz first spotted the image.

    "Otherwise you could use any type of accident picture," Schwartz said. "There are other pictures of well-known nuclear accidents one could use going back into the 1950s."

    Eric Schlosser, the author of "Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety," has chronicled nuclear accidents across the history of the US's nuclear arsenal. He agreed with Schwartz's assessment.

    "That sure doesn't look good," he said.

    Business Insider contacted a former official in the weapons department of Sandia, who said the object in question was not an air-launched cruise missile — or a missile at all — but rather an external fuel tank.

    Yet this explanation did not hold up to experts' scrutiny.

    Here are some examples of external fuel tanks, which jets carry to extend their range:

    external fuel tanks nuclear accident

    Compare them with the trapezoidal shape of the AGM-86, the US's nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile:

    agm 86bc air launched cruise missile nuclear capable

    Note the ridge toward the nose of the object, near where the truck seems to have run it over. That ridge is consistent with the AGM-86. Additionally, the object appears to have an air intake toward the tail, which no external fuel tank for a jet would have.

    agm 86 nuclear accident

    Schwartz concluded that the object was some older version of the AGM-86, which has undergone slight redesigns over time.

    So was it a nuclear or nuclear-capable missile?

    No one seems to know for sure. The US manufactured conventionally armed AGM-86 missiles, and it has certainly made training aides that look like the AGM-86.

    But Schwartz said that out of countless photos of known incidents Sandia could have picked to represent an accident with a munition, he found it curious that Sandia selected this image.

    Could the missile have detonated?

    b 52 nuclear amg 86 bomb

    Schwartz said that as alarming as the picture was, the US's nukes are so stable and responsibly made that even if you dropped one off a trailer and ran it over with your truck, "it will not cause it to detonate with a nuclear yield."

    "The worst-case scenario — and it doesn't look like it happened — would be the conventional high explosives detonate and scatter plutonium across the area," said Schwartz, who explained that nuclear cruise missiles contain both a conventional explosive and a nuclear core. The nuclear core would certainly not have been armed in this situation, thereby eliminating a nuclear detonation as a possibility.

    "Clearly just the front section with the radar and altimeter" were smashed, said Schwartz, who added that the nuclear core sits farther back in the missile.

    "Conventional high explosives are somewhat unstable," he said. "But obviously there was no fire here, and pure crushing wouldn't necessarily cause an explosion.

    b61 12 nuclear gravity bomb 6 nnsa"The next worst thing would be: Is the weapon a loss? Is it possible to repair the missile?"

    Nuclear missiles, even training aids, can cost millions. So while the accident at worst posed a small risk of an explosion that would spread radioactive materials — not a nuclear detonation — it was likely still a costly mistake.

    "Something happened, and it wasn't the weapon's fault," Schwartz said.

    According to Sandia, this picture was included in the slideshow to demonstrate an immutable fact about even the most responsible pursuits: "Human error can occur despite concerted efforts to achieve 100% safe operations."

    SEE ALSO: The F-35 may carry one of the US's most polarizing nuclear weapons sooner than expected

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    davis monthan air force base

    A U.S. Air Force base near Tucson, Arizona was locked down for about an hour on Monday following unconfirmed reports of "gunshot sounds" heard there, a base spokeswoman said.

    No further details of the incident at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base were immediately available, according to a spokeswoman for the base.

    The base announced the lockdown on social media shortly before 10 a.m. (1700 GMT), saying that there were "unconfirmed reports of gunshot sounds."

    An all clear was declared about an hour later and the base said personnel there were "free to resume all normal operations."

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    Sean Spicer

    President Donald Trump's administration promised on Monday that the US would stop China from taking over land in international waters in the South China Sea, but seemed to back off more hawkish claims made by secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson at a senate hearing.  

    "I think the US is going to make sure that we protect our interests there," White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters in Washington, D.C.

    "It’s a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yeah, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country," said Spicer referring to China's unlawfully claimed and militarized islands in the South China Sea, where an estimated $5 trillion in shipping passes annually. 

    This statement stops short of Tillerson's earlier comment that the US should "send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed."

    Tillerson's comment drew fierce rebuke from Chinese state-run media and US-based China watchers as well, with Chinese media saying that "unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish."

    US Navy uss lassen

    At the time, Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Business Insider that she heard "from some people on the transition team that he misspoke."

    Glaser also agreed that Tillerson's suggested moves in the South China Sea were impractical, and that the US would "certainly end up in a shooting war with China."

    south china seas

    SEE ALSO: The US just put China on notice with F-35s in the Pacific — but China may be ready with a counter punch

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    Mike Pompeo

    The Senate is on track to confirm President Donald Trump's pick to run the CIA and is expected to vote on his nomination Monday evening.

    Rep. Mike Pompeo, a conservative Republican from Kansas and a member of the House intelligence committee, faced a mostly nonconfrontational confirmation hearing on Jan. 12.

    Senate Republicans had hoped to vote on Pompeo's nomination Friday, after Trump's inauguration. But Democrats succeeded in stalling action until they could debate it on Monday. Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Patrick Leahy of Vermont objected to what they said was a "rushed confirmation" and demanded more time for Pompeo's nomination to be "vetted, questioned and debated."

    If confirmed, Pompeo would take the helm at the nation's top spy agency at a critical time for U.S. national security when intelligence — traditionally a nonpartisan issue — has been thrust into the political arena.

    In its final days, President Barack Obama's administration announced intelligence findings that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election with the goal of getting Trump elected. Trump himself has denied most of the assessment, though eventually conceded Russia was behind the hacking of Democratic emails during the campaign.

    One of Trump's first stops as president was at the CIA's headquarters in Northern Virginia on Saturday where he made a speech that focused more on falsely accusing the media of lying about how many people attended his inauguration than on the role the CIA plays protecting the U.S. Standing in front of a memorial for fallen CIA agents, Trump assured intelligence officials, "I am so behind you." He made no mention of his repeated criticism of the intelligence agencies following the election, including his public challenges of their high-confidence assessment that Russia meddled in the White House race to help him win.

    john brennan CIA

    Obama's CIA director, John Brennan, said Trump "should be ashamed of himself" for his behavior at CIA headquarters.

    Wyden, one of the senators who fought to delay a vote on Pompeo, said the congressman has been inconsistent in his statements about Russia's involvement in the 2016 election.

    In written responses to questions from the Senate, on Jan. 3, Pompeo said that intelligence agency assessments should be taken seriously. After Trump conceded Russia was behind the campaign hacks, Pompeo on Jan. 12 told the Senate intelligence committee that the assessment was "solid."

    He enrolled as a teenager at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and graduated first in his class in 1986. He served in the Army at a time when the Soviet Union was America's No. 1 adversary.

    SEE ALSO: White House: The US will stop China from taking over territory in international waters

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    Officials say the Obama administration in its waning hours defied Republican opposition and quietly released $221 million to the Palestinian Authority.

    GOP members of Congress had been holding up the money.

    A State Department official and several congressional aides say the outgoing administration formally notified Congress it would spend the money Friday morning, just before Donald Trump became president.

    More than $227 million in foreign affairs funding was released at the time, including $4 million for climate change programs and $1.25 million for U.N. organizations.

    At least two GOP lawmakers had placed holds on the Palestinian funds. Congressional holds are generally respected by the executive branch but are not legally binding.

    The official and the aides weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.

    SEE ALSO: Kellyanne Conway backpedals: Trump may still release his tax returns

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    The US Marine Corps did not mince words when deploying F-35s to Japan, saying that the "arrival of the F-35B embodies our commitment to the defense of Japan and the regional-security of the Pacific.”

    Tensions between the US, US allies, and China have been steadily mounting for years as China builds artificial islands and outfits them with radar outposts and missile launchers in the South China Sea, home to a shipping corridor that sees $5 trillion in trade annually.

    One area where the US and China have indirectly competed has been in combat aviation.

    In November, China debuted the Chengdu J-20, a large, stealthy jet that some have compared to the F-22 Raptor. But, according to experts, the J-20 is not a fighter, not a dogfighter, not stealthy, and not at all like the F-22 or F-35.

    Dr. Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at Australia Strategic Policy Institute, told Business Insider that the "J-20 is [a] fundamentally different sort of aircraft than the F-35."

    Davis characterized the J-20 as "high speed, long range, not quite as stealthy (as US fifth-gen aircraft), but they clearly don’t see that as important." According to Davis, the J-20 is "not a fighter but an interceptor and a strike aircraft," that doesn't seek to contend with US jets in air-to-air battles.

    Instead, "The Chinese are recognizing they can attack critical airborne support systems like AWACS (airborne early warning and control systems) and refueling planes so they can’t do their job," said Davis. "If you can force the tankers back, then the F-35s and other platforms aren’t sufficient because they can’t reach their target."

    F-35B refuel

    Retired US Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula gave a similar assessment of the J-20 to Defense & Aerospace Report in November.

    "The J-20 in particular is different than the F-22 in the context that, if you take a look and analyze the design, it may have some significant low-observable capabilities on the front end, but not all aspects — nor is it built as a dogfighter," said Deptula."But quite frankly, the biggest concern is its design to carry long-range weapons."

    What the J-20 lacks in stealth and dogfighting ability, it makes up for by focusing on a single, comparatively soft type of target. Unlike the US, which has fielded extremely stealthy aircraft, China lacks the experience to create a plane that baffles radars from all angles.

    Instead, the J-20's design makes for a plane that's somewhat stealthy from the front angle, as it uses its long range and long-range missiles to fly far out and hit tankers and radar planes that support platforms like the F-35 or F-22.

    "They're moving into an era where they're designing aircraft not just as an evolution of what they used to have, but they're going into a new space," said Deptula of China's J-20 concept.

    Chengdu J-20

    However, the J-20 may still be a long way off.

    In November,Justin Bronk, a research fellow specializing in combat airpower at the Royal United Services Institute, told Business Insider that the models displayed at Airshow China were not much more than showpieces: "It's possible that the aircraft that were shown are still instrumented production aircraft," or planes with "loads of sensors to monitor performance" instead of in a combat-ready formation.

    Former F-35 and F-22 pilot Lt. Col. David Berke also questioned China's progress in an interview with Business Insider, saying "it’s really, really, really hard to make an effective nose-to-tail platform in the fifth gen."

    Far from feeling threatened by the J-20, Berke seemed vindicated that the US's potential adversaries have worked so hard to counter emerging US capabilities like the F-35.

    "If the things we were doing [with the F-35, F-22] weren’t relevant, effective, the competition wouldn’t be worried about trying to match it," said Berke.

    SEE ALSO: White House: The US will stop China from taking over territory in international waters

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    NOW WATCH: China flexes its military might by unveiling a new stealth fighter jet

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    staffan de mistura syria peace russia turkey astana

    Peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition in Kazakhstan were a coup for their international sponsors but exposed the limits of what Russia, Turkey, and Iran can achieve in their efforts to resolve the six-year-old war.

    It was the first time in nine months the two sides had come together, albeit briefly and unhappily, and the first time that Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran had presided over such talks, with the United States only present as an observer.

    The fact that the talks happened at all was a diplomatic coup that underlined the three countries' growing Middle East clout and Washington's diminished influence at a time when Donald Trump is settling into the presidency.

    The head of the Russian delegation, Alexander Lavrentyev, hailed the talks, held in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, as the "birth" of a new negotiating format, and there were hopes they might make it more likely that U.N.-brokered talks could take place in Geneva next month.

    At the end of two chaotic days, Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran backed a shaky Dec. 30 truce between Syria's warring parties and agreed to monitor its compliance.

    free syrian army

    Yet negotiations did not go to plan, showing that the three would-be Syria conflict brokers, in their different ways, all have credibility problems. This suggests they may have to involve Washington and the Gulf States more fully if they are to have any chance of brokering a final deal.

    That could be difficult as the talks spotlighted sharp differences between Moscow and Tehran over the possible future participation of the United States, in particular.

    State media in Iran cited Iranian officials as saying any future U.S. involvement was unacceptable, while Lavrentyev, the main Russian negotiator, said Moscow would welcome Washington joining the process.

    "They (the Russians) can now see how difficult their partners are," said one Western diplomat.

    In previous rounds of U.N. talks in Geneva, Moscow had not been able to call the shots in the way it could in Kazakhstan, the diplomat said, because the United States and the West had succeeded in diluting its role. This time, Moscow had its first taste of what it is like to be in the hot seat.

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had previously lamented the failure of U.N.-backed talks in Geneva, calling them "fruitless sitting around." Lavrentyev, Russia's chief negotiator in Astana, put a positive gloss on the Kazakh talks but did not hide the diplomatic difficulties either, complaining at different times about how tough the discussions were.

    Western envoys, who turned up informally to observe developments from the corridors of the hotel, mingled with reporters to try to ascertain what the purpose of the meeting was. There was much speculation about whether Russia wanted a follow-up meeting that would go into the details of what was, in the end, a vague final communiqué.

    "Frankly, we're baffled. Why is Russia doing this now? What has changed for them that they want to disengage militarily and engage politically?" said one diplomat.

    Western envoys congregated in the lobby of the Rixos, the talks venue, as snow fell outside and could be heard debating whether to try the local horse-meat specialties in the hotel's Irish pub, where clouds of cigarette smoked filled the air.

    At one point, on Monday evening, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry began searching for guides willing to show the rebels around local shopping malls after apparently being told that the opposition wanted to pick up some bargains.

    Revolutionary Guard IRGC Basij

    Legitimacy problems

    Back at the talks, rebels and Western diplomats questioned the role of Iran and its allies.

    "The Russians have moved from a stage of being a party in the fighting and are now exerting efforts to become a guarantor. They are finding a lot of obstacles from (Lebanon's Shiite) Hezbollah forces, Iran, and the regime," said Mohammed Alloush, the head of the Syrian opposition delegation.

    Western diplomats said they too saw Iran as one of the main obstacles to progress with one saying Tehran's commitment to the cease-fire and a political transition was uncertain.

    Moscow said it had given the rebels the draft of a new constitution, drawn up by Russian specialists, to speed agreement on a political transition. It was unclear however what the document said or what the rebels thought of it.

    The talks yielded a joint communique from Russia, Turkey, and Iran which pledged to create a monitoring mechanism to police Syria's patchy ceasefire, but the rebels did not endorse it.

    Instead, they submitted a separate proposal on the cease-fire and questioned Iran's legitimacy as a broker at a time when they said Iranian militias were breaching the cease-fire.

    The communique legitimized Iran's "bloodletting" in Syria, complained Alloush, and did not address the role of Shiite militias fighting the rebels.

    Nor did the rebels, who for the first time were represented by military rather than just political figures, show any signs of watering down their demand that President Bashar Assad step down as soon as possible, something Damascus won't accept.

    For some of them, Russia's broker status sat awkwardly.

    "We are not opposed to Russia because it is Russia but we had a problem when its jets were participating with the regime in killing our people," said Osama Abu Zaid, an opposition spokesman. "If this role ends then we'll have no problem."

    The Syrian government delegation had its own issues with the talks' sponsors, questioning Turkey's legitimacy as a broker at a time when it said Ankara was violating its sovereignty via an extended armed incursion into northern Syria.

    Putin Assad

    No face-to-face talks

    Neither delegation included senior figures, and Washington was only represented in an observer capacity by its local ambassador. Apart from one official from the United Arab Emirates present informally, Arab envoys were absent.

    And in a major setback, Moscow failed to get the two sides to negotiate face-to-face, despite Lavrentyev, the Russian negotiator, saying beforehand that face-to-face talks were "the main goal."

    The rebels balked at that, saying they could not sit down with people responsible for so much bloodshed. Instead, Moscow had to make do with indirect talks with the two delegations relaying messages via intermediaries.

    Some diplomats said it was the opposition that had refused, but others said there were fears that Bashar Ja'afari, the head of the government delegation, who has a reputation for being curt, would add "vinegar to the water," giving indirect talks a better chance of success.

    There was quarreling about the format and the agenda from the outset.

    The opposition demanded talks focus solely on a cease-fire that should require Iranian-backed militias to quit Syria.

    But the government, emboldened by the fact the talks were being held under the cosponsorship of Russia, a staunch ally, and with the balance of power turning in its favor on the ground, said there was a chance to push for reconciliation with Assad remaining in power, a red line for the rebels.

    Opening statements laid bare those divisions.

    Alloush, the head of the rebel delegation, called the Syrian government "a bloody despotic regime," while Ja'afari, head of the government delegation, accused opposition negotiators of defending "war crimes" and of being rude and unprofessional.

    Ja'afari made clear too that a government offensive against Wadi Barada, which supplies most of the water for Damascus, would continue even though rebels see it as a truce violation.

    "As long as 7 million people in Damascus remain deprived of water, it will continue," said Ja'afari.

    Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow-based foreign policy think tank close to the Foreign Ministry, told Reuters the talks had been "better than nothing."

    "But there is no silver bullet," he said.

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