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Is Nuclear Arms Control Still Alive?

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For almost eight years we have been witnessing a decline (or even absence) of Russian and U.S. efforts in the sphere of nuclear arms control, which can be seen at both the official and expert levels. The last achievement in this field was the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New Start Treaty) which was signed by Russia and the United States in 2010 and entered into force in February 2011. Since then, issues pertaining to further steps in nuclear disarmament have disappeared from the agenda of Russian-American relations.

In the past, such pauses were filled with active consultations and were used to rethink one’s own policy in this area and comprehensively assess the other party’s position. Preparatory work continued even in the period between the fall of 1983 (when the Soviet Union withdrew from all nuclear arms negotiations with the United States) and the spring of 1985 (when the negotiations were resumed), while informal contacts between the parties (primarily through scientific communities) became much stronger.

Over a period of fifty years, the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia achieved significant progress in curbing the nuclear arms race and gradually and steadily lowering the level of nuclear confrontation between the two major nuclear powers. In the Soviet Union/Russia, the greatest achievements in nuclear arms control were made during the rule of Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev. Vladimir Putin played an important role in the ratification of the START II Treaty (2000) during his first term as president, as he convinced legislators of its effectiveness and usefulness for Russia’s security interests, and in the conclusion of the Russian-American Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (2002). Dmitry Medvedev earned a place for himself in the history of nuclear disarmament by signing the aforementioned 2010 Treaty. It was only during the brief rule of Yuri Andropov (from November 1982 to February 1984) and Konstantin Chernenko (from February 1984 to March 1985) that there was no tangible progress in nuclear arms control.

In the United States, all the eight presidents that preceded Donald Trump—from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama—had achievements in this field. It is still an open question whether Trump will want to break with this tradition. In any case, there are several arguments both in favor of and against such a possibility. It should be emphasized that not everything depends on the desire or unwillingness of the U.S. administration to conclude new agreements in this area. Russia’s position has an equal role to play, and this position does not inspire much optimism at the present time.

Politicians and experts name many reasons for the breach of Russia-U.S. relations in the field of nuclear arms control. One of them is believed to be the deterioration of Russia-West relations over the Ukraine crisis. But facts show that the problem arose much earlier. In March 2013 (that is, one year before the events in Ukraine), former chief of the presidential administration of Russia Sergei Ivanov openly said that Russia was not interested in further reductions in armaments and named the reason for that: the completion of the modernization of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces and its unwillingness to eliminate new strategic weapons that had only recently entered service.

Another argument, named by President Putin in February 2012, is the need to involve third nuclear powers in the nuclear disarmament process after the 2010 treaty. Further explanations provided by some other officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, claimed that deeper reductions (outside the treaty’s framework) would make the strategic offensive weapons of Russia and the U.S. “comparable” with those of third nuclear powers.

Moscow puts the main blame for the failure to achieve new nuclear arms control agreements with the U.S. on the missile defense problem. This problem arose now and then in Soviet times and came to a head in 1983 when President Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The SDI slowed down START I negotiations and nearly blocked the conclusion of this and other nuclear disarmament agreements. The United States’ withdrawal from the open-ended ABM Treaty in 2002 and its subsequent efforts to create and deploy missile defense in its own territory and territories of its allies, coupled with unsuccessful attempts to reach agreement with Russia on joint missile defense programs, exacerbated the situation still further.

Moscow also explains the lack of progress in strategic nuclear arms reductions by the possession of nuclear weapons by Washington’s NATO allies. Anatoly Antonov, who at that time was Russian deputy defense minister, said this factor “cannot be ignored.” Other factors that Moscow says should be “taken into account” include the “Global Strike” concept, the deployment of strategic precision-guided conventional weapons, plans to deploy weapons in outer space, the presence of U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe, and some other disproportions, many of which are mentioned in Russia’s present National Security Strategy, approved by Putin in late 2015.

Russia’s position on further steps towards nuclear disarmament resembles that of the Soviet Union in the late 1960s. It is based on the principle of “equal security,” which means that all factors determining the balance of power between the opposing sides should be taken into account. This explains why in negotiations with Washington on strategic nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union considered it justified to demand compensation for imbalances in other categories of arms.

Naturally, fifty years ago, the categories of weapons subject to “compensation” were different from those of today. They did not include conventional weapons of any kind. Moscow was concerned about nuclear weapons possessed by the U.S.’s NATO allies, and U.S. forward-deployed nuclear weapons in Europe. Now Russia has taken a broader approach, focusing more on non-nuclear armaments, which creates additional difficulties in the search for mutual understanding with the United States and which calls into question the possibility of concluding new agreements.

If we recognize that Russia’s concern over the effect of missile defense and precision-guided and other conventional weapons on the strategic balance is of a fundamental nature, a natural question arises: How to accommodate this concern if a political decision is made to continue the nuclear disarmament process? And should Russia agree to deeper reductions in nuclear weapons if its concern is ignored?

Needless to say, no agreement on strategic offensive arms can set unequal ceilings on the number of warheads and their strategic delivery vehicles remaining after reductions. That would be at variance with the very meaning of an international treaty, which should be based on the principle of equality of the parties and which should conform to its subject matter. Nevertheless, there are other ways to accommodate the aforementioned concerns. For example, in the second half of the 1980s, the Soviet Union was very concerned about the SDI program and American nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. This is why a package solution was proposed—simultaneous negotiations on three issues: medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe, strategic offensive arms, and defense and outer space. Moscow put forward a condition that the three planned agreements should be signed simultaneously. Washington did not object. However, the Soviet Union did not adhere to this position for long. At first, the term ‘nuclear delivery vehicles’ was used to designate only land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, while aviation was excluded from the negotiations. Later, Moscow removed this category of weapons from the initial package, after which, in December 1987, the parties signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), which is of unlimited duration.

For a much longer time, almost until all provisions of the START I Treaty were agreed, the Soviet Union insisted on a linkage between strategic offensive and defensive weapons, which was reflected in official statements and the structure of the Soviet delegation to the talks. Moscow sent one delegation to the talks on these two types of weapons. Negotiations on defense and outer space were conducted by a separate group within the delegation. The United States was represented by two separate delegations. One worked on START I, and the other held consultations on defense and outer space. When it became clear that the defense and space negotiations would fail and that the START I Treaty was almost ready, the Soviet Union signed the treaty but made a unilateral statement on the need to observe the ABM Treaty as a condition for implementing START I.

This experience proves that one real way to accommodate concerns is to conclude separate agreements on the most pressing security problems, including missile defense, precision-guided long-range weapons, and space weapons. The authors of World 2035. Global Forecast, published by the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations in 2017, admit of this possibility but consider it the least likely of the proposed four scenarios for the development of the military-political situation in the world in the period until 2035.

Speaking of concrete ways to accommodate concerns, one should assess, at least approximately, the effect of missile defense, precision-guided weapons and space weapons on the Russian-U.S. strategic balance. First of all, let us note an interesting circumstance. When it comes to the effect of various factors on the strategic balance, Russian officials insisting that this effect should be taken into account somehow fail to mention air defense. If we follow this logic, then any weapons capable of combating strategic offensive weapons should be included in the overall balance of power, especially if they are intended to combat retaliatory systems. These weapons definitely include the aviation component of the strategic triad. Without going into further discussion, let us note that this omission of air defense issues seems to be due to some other considerations than a desire to strengthen strategic stability.

Of the remaining three categories of weapons, which, in the opinion of the Russian leadership, have an effect on the strategic balance, space weapons are the most interesting from the point of view of concluding a possible agreement. The fact is, there are no such weapons yet, as far as we know. Therefore, they have no effect on the strategic balance. It is worth recalling the Soviet Union’s struggle against the SDI program in the second half of the 1980s. Many experts said then that “space strike weapons” would be created in the foreseeable future. The most skeptical participants in discussions said that such systems would appear in 20 to 25 years at the earliest. 30 years have passed since then, but this type of weapons (space-based lasers, railguns and other exotic weapons) has not come into existence so far. There are no serious reasons, either, to suggest that space weapons will be in the strategic arsenal of the United States or other countries within the next two to three decades, even if new technologies make this possible. In this case, the following factors will come into play: cost, combat effectiveness of weapon systems, their vulnerability, and possible reaction from the domestic opposition, individual countries and the international community as a whole. These factors may not only slow down but prevent the militarization of space.

In addition, there are no commonly agreed definitions for such terms as ‘weapons’, which can be the subject of an agreement on space issues. Unfortunately, such an agreement can hardly be based on the draft international Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects, submitted by China and Russia to the Conference on Disarmament in 2008 (and its updated version, submitted in 2014). The draft only proposed preventing the deployment of weapons in outer space and made no mention of prohibiting their development or testing in space. Nor did it mention weapons deployed on Earth but capable of destroying outer space objects.

Criticisms of this document can be continued, but the main problem is whether it is possible to reach a verifiable agreement on limiting or banning space weapons, whatever this term might mean, even if all parties show real interest in it. There are more doubts than optimism regarding this possibility. Answering this question requires more than just efforts by diplomats, the military and developers of space weapons. More experts should be involved in these efforts, including scientists from countries that may be parties to future agreements.

Another interesting question concerns long-range precision-guided conventional weapons and their effect on the strategic balance. According to the majority of specialists, this type of weapons includes cruise missiles, non-nuclear ICBMs, and some weapon systems (for example, hypersonic gliders). As a rule, the degree of effect such weapons may have on the strategic balance is not assessed. Nevertheless, it is asserted that they can not only weaken but also undermine strategic stability. This is a doubtful statement.

If we view these systems from the point of view of strengthening the offensive capability, they are absolutely incommensurable with nuclear weapons in terms of power. Precision-guided weapons are absolutely unsuitable for preemptive strikes for many reasons. Speaking of non-nuclear ICBMs, their accuracy should by far exceed that of nuclear ICBMs. Otherwise, they won’t be able to destroy hard targets (such as missile silos or command centers). According to open source data, modern ICBMs have accuracy (circular error probable – CEP) of several dozen meters, at best. Destroying a hard target with a conventional warhead requires this accuracy of not more than several meters, which is impossible to achieve at the present technological level of these systems.

But this is not the main concern. If an aggressor decides to use precision-guided weapons (conventional ICBMs) in a surprise attack to destroy a significant part of the opponent’s nuclear arsenal, it will have to plan a massive attack. Such an attack cannot go unnoticed due to a missile warning system. There is no guarantee that the attacked party will not use nuclear warning systems when it receives information confirming the attack. So, it does not really matter to the victim of such aggression whether the approaching ICBMs carry nuclear or conventional warheads. The response will almost certainly be nuclear, with all the ensuing consequences.

Finally, one more important argument is that if Russia or the United States decides to deploy a great number of non-nuclear ICBMs, they will most likely have to do this at the expense of their own strategic nuclear weapons. If the 2010 treaty remains in effect (until 2021) and if it is extended (until 2026), all ICBMs will be counted under the treaty’s limits for strategic delivery vehicles (700 deployed delivery vehicles for each party). In order for non-nuclear ICBMs not to be counted under the treaty, one needs to create a new strategic delivery vehicle and prove that this weapon system is not covered by this treaty. This will be very hard to do, given the strained Russian-American relations. Unilateral actions will most likely lead to the collapse of this international agreement.

As regards cruise missiles as an element of precision-guided weapons, one important issue should be clarified above all. Under the New START Treaty of 2010, long-range (over 600 km) nuclear cruise missiles are not counted as strategic offensive arms. In other words, in the opinion of Russia and the United States, they are not strategic weapons. Each heavy bomber carrying nuclear-tipped air-launched cruise missiles is counted as one delivery vehicle and one warhead, no matter how many missiles it may carry. Sea-launched cruise missiles are not covered by this treaty at all. It does not even mention the term ‘long-range nuclear cruise missile.’ Simply put, the parties do not think that these nuclear weapons can undermine the strategic balance; therefore, they see no reason to limit them in the START Treaty. In this case, however, it is completely unclear why long-range nuclear cruise missiles do not affect the strategic balance between the parties, as Moscow and Washington stated in the above-mentioned agreement, whereas similar conventional weapons should undermine strategic stability, especially since some studies show that conventional cruise missiles are not capable of destroying highly protected strategic offensive weapons.

It is believed in Russia that the most serious threat to strategic stability comes from missile defense. However, there is much more ambiguity in this issue than evidence confirmed by practice. First of all, many experts and politicians follow a strange logic when talking about missile defense issues, and their logic differs significantly from the normal perception of the security problem. For example, it is claimed that the U.S. missile defense system “threatens” Russia’s strategic potential. But such a threat can be translated into action only after Russia strikes with ballistic missiles. For as long as these missiles are not used, missile defense does not threaten them. Saying that missile defense poses a threat to someone’s nuclear potential is the same as saying that a hard hat worn by a construction worker is a threat to a brick that may fall on his head.

Opponents of missile defense argue that it will be used after the enemy delivers a first strike against its opponent’s strategic forces, thus greatly weakening the latter’s retaliatory strike. It is this retaliatory strike that will have to be intercepted by missile defense. This abstract and senseless reasoning underlies the logic of missile defense opponents who denounce any programs for creating and deploying missile defense. They view such efforts as an attempt to achieve military superiority and create conditions for victory in a nuclear war. In fact, the entire concept of strategic stability is based on the assessment of the consequences of a first strike and the aggressor’s ability to repulse a retaliatory strike.

Debates over the effect of missile defense on strategic stability have been going on for sixty years, so there is no need to cite here all arguments for and against, set forth in numerous publications. Let us only note that these debates were largely held in the U.S. In the Soviet Union and Russia, an overwhelming majority of experts shared the view that the development of missile defense systems undermines strategic stability, increasing the probability of a first strike in crisis situations and spurring a race in strategic arms in all areas. As a rule, the debates focused on the assessment of effectiveness of missile defense systems and time required for the deployment of new weapon systems.

Now let’s see how the United States can repulse Russia’s “retaliatory strike” after its own “large-scale nuclear attack,” if such plans really exist. First of all, let’s take a look at the geography of U.S. missile defense systems. If the main task of the U.S. were to defend against a Russian retaliatory strike, it would deploy its missile defense system primarily along its borders and deep in its heartland. A thin defense of the country would require at least 10 to 12 deployment areas with several dozen interceptor missiles in each. As far as is known, nothing like this is happening. Such a program does not exist, and such proposals have never been submitted. By the end of 2017, 44 Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI) are to be deployed in U.S. territory (40 in Alaska and 4 in California). By 2025, the number of GBIs is planned to be increased to 56.

It should be recalled here that the most important provision of the 1972 ABM Treaty (from which the U.S. withdrew in 2002) was the limitation of interceptor missiles capable of shooting down incoming ICBM warheads. Each party was permitted to have up to 200 ABM systems in two ABM deployment areas. The Protocol of 1974 to the Treaty limited the number of ABM systems to 100 at each ABM site. In other words, the U.S. has not yet exceeded the limit set by the ABM Treaty and will not do so in the foreseeable future, which means that strategic stability, as understood by missile defense opponents, is not undermined.

Russia is greatly concerned over the proposed missile defense system for Europe and keeps an eye on programs for deploying similar systems in the Middle East and some Asian countries. But all these systems are not strategic in terms of location and performance. Of course, some modifications of the U.S. Standard interceptor missiles, THAAD and some other systems have a certain potential to combat strategic ballistic missiles. But they are not intended to perform such tasks and can shoot down ICBM warheads only accidentally. It is also important that the above BMD systems have never been tested against strategic missiles (warheads); so they cannot be relied on for intercepting retaliatory strikes with strategic ballistic missiles.

In addition, these systems pose no threat to Russia’s strategic potential due to the geography of their deployment. This will be clear if we move from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional vision of this geography. Simply put, we should be looking not at the flat map of the world, but at the globe. Then many things will look differently. For example, we will see that the shortest way from Russia to America is not via Amsterdam or Paris, but across the North Pole.

To my view, there are no serious military-strategic obstacles to further dialogue between Russia and the United States on more reductions in strategic offensive arms. The effect of precision-guided and space weapons on the strategic balance between the parties is clearly exaggerated. In the foreseeable future, their effect will continue to be minimal, if at all.

U.S. missile defense programs are limited in terms of their impact on Russia’s ability to deliver a crushing retaliatory strike, even if weakened by a U.S. first strategic strike. The latter, too, is a very dubious strategic concept, which, nevertheless, underlies many discussions about ways to strengthen security and so-called strategic stability. No sane leader of a country would rely on an unreliable missile defense system, which has failed many tests and which can be bypassed by changing the direction of attack.

As for political obstacles to new negotiations, they have piled up both in Russian-American and Russia-West relations. They are difficult to overcome, and this will most certainly take much time and effort. There is a view that negotiations on deeper reductions in strategic offensive arms are possible only after relations between the two countries more or less improve or, at least, show a clear tendency towards improvement.

But this problem can be approached from a different perspective by setting the goal of concluding a new agreement on deeper reductions in strategic offensive arms and limiting the number of strategic warheads to 1,000 for each party. If concluded, the new agreement could serve as a positive example of cooperation and give a chance to reach mutual understanding in other areas. This will be facilitated by the beginning of broad consultations on the whole range of security problems, including those that evoke Russia’s concern.

In July 2018 in Helsinki Putin and Trump agreed to pay special attention to the problem of extension of a New START Treaty for the following 5 years (until the year of 2016), as well as to preserving the INF Treaty which became a subject of serious criticism during the last 3-4 years. It is obviously a positive step into a right direction. But it is not enough. Both states have quite a big potential for further reductions of their nuclear arsenals – strategic and tactical as well even without the participation of the third nuclear states in this process. This possible participation needs serious investigation and special attention of all the interested parties.

Chief Research Fellow at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (Moscow, Russia). In 1989-1991 was a member of Soviet negotiating team at START-1 negotiations (Defense and Space Talks).

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Revitalising the Quad

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With a high-level informal meeting of the Foreign Ministers of US, India, Japan and Australia on the side lines of the last month UN General Assembly meeting, the much needed impetus has gained to the quadrilateral security dialogue (quad) concerning the security of the Indo-Pacific. The genesis of the quad grouping can be traced back to the 2007 Malabar naval exercise, but proclaimed it as an idea for security of the Indo-Pacific by Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe in 2013 with his ‘Security Diamond’ concept and revived it in 2017 with a new security dialogue mechanism. Since then the four member countries have had official level meetings largely on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit. Indeed, quad is a grouping of regional heavyweights in their backyard, Japan in the western Pacific, India in the Indian Ocean and Australia in the southern Pacific along with the most powerful military in the world, the US.  However, China perceived it as a mechanism to counter its rise.  Undoubtedly, the looming China “threat” is the rallying point of the quad formation. 

China views quad as a grouping as well as individual countries differently. Beijing sees quad is a potential military alliance under US leadership against China. At the same time it doesn’t see individual regional countries as a threat and presumably view with varied perspectives: it opposes Japan  being a ‘normal’ military power but is satisfied with an ally of the US; it objects to a strong India-US defence cooperation because US technical support would help India become a regional hegemon in the Indian Ocean theatre; while remain neutral to Australia.

In a similar fashion the member countries also view China “threat” separately- for US, it’s a peer competitor in spite of the economic interdependence  andonly US can afford the magnitude of current trade war, while India and Japan are its neighboring countries and major trade partners so ill-afford to face security challenges or economic misery, and China is Australia’s largest trade partner but no qualms over security. And, India is more reticent in strengthening the quad because of its fear of “ally-entrapment”. Conversely, China continues its expansionism in the maritime domain, now reached upto India’s backyard.  However, no single country can independently challenge China’s might and that China wants this situation continues in future.  

Asia requires a regional balancing mechanism

As realism explains, peace and stability across the regions is ensured through balance of power. If one country emerged as a regional hegemon then it would seek to exploit others and start exercising its will over lesser states. Eminent realist Kenneth Waltzargued “unbalanced power, whoever wields it, is a potential danger to others.” So far, the old cold war centric balancing and US preponderance have been the main pillars of stability in Asia. But with the rise of China that balance is diminishing and Asia seems to be moving in the direction of unipolarity. However, a unipolar Asia with China at the centre would harm the interest of other heavyweights so structure demands a balancing mechanism to contain one-country dominance. The quad formation can be seen as a structurally driven balancing of secondary powers to prevent the region from unipolarity

At the same time, quad faces perspective and structural problems.  No country in the region is willing to formally join in anycounter-mechanism that is being touted as ant-China. And China is vehemently opposing any sort of coming together of these four countries. For instance, when 2007 edition of bilateral India- US Malabar  naval exercise was converted into a quadrilateral, China sent demarche to the participants asking the rationale behind such grouping and since then the four countries  havenever joined together for a naval exercise.

Another perspective problem is how the quad is acceptable for other regional countries. Southeast Asian states fear that the regional politics will be dominated by great power game and Southeast Asia would be a theatre for jostling by these powers. So it upholds its time-tested inclusive approach in all regional formations, and nothing short of inclusivity.

On the contrary, quad must be seen as another regional organisations along with APEC, ARF, EAS and ADMM plus. All these organisations have different objectives, some of it are security oriented, and deliberations are in a consensus manner. However, none of it is able to address hard security issues that if a military clash took place between China and others then it is hardly to manage under such organizations. Though quad is not a region-wide organization but has the potential military capability to contain the threat both individually and collectively, if it is necessary.   At some level the region requires a power balancing mechanism to maintain peace and stability.

Structurally, it is not a formal alliance so does no clear agenda and an action plan, except the idea of the need for preserving rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific. Japan and Australia are close allies of the US while India wants to keep its ‘strategic autonomy’ and doesn’t want to give any commitment to larger regional issues unless it directly confronts New Delhi. As a result, there has been no coherent agenda as to how this mechanism can be brought up. Threat perceptions and the counter mechanisms are varied for the quad members. 

Under these circumstances, Quad needs to be kept under the soft balancing tactics as of now. A hard balancing by forming a military alliance would bring a cold war structure  that will destabilize the region. The soft balancing can be converted into a hard balancing according to circumstances that if China ever sought to become a revisionist state.  At the same time, instead of as a leader US should be a facilitator of the quad and the regional countries of India Japan and Australia should be allowed to drive the quad. Today trilateral mechanism blossoms within the quad: US- India-Japan and US-Japan- Australia, but there is no India-Japan- Australia trilateral mechanism.   An India-Japan- Australia regional mechanism under the umbrella of quad can bring more energy to the quad. Also, it necessarily requires an action plan which could convince other regional countries of the importance of the quad in Asian security scenario.

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The Game-changing Fallibility of BMD Systems: Lessons from the Middle East and South Asia

M Waqas Jan

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As the Middle East’s major powers recalculate their defence and foreign policies following last month’s missile strikes on Saudi oilfields, there have emerged some telling lessons with regard to the changing nature of modern warfare. While these lessons are perhaps painfully obvious to the likes of Saudi Arabia who have directly been on the receiving end of these attacks, they are also evident in the near deafening introspection being undertaken by the region’s other power brokers, the United States and Israel as well. This has been made clear by the fact that even after a month since the attacks took place, there remains a definite and near ironic aspect of shock and awe to what was otherwise a quick, covert and precision strike on a highly valuable target.

What’s more, the fact that the strike took place despite the presence of one of the world’s most sophisticated missile defense systems, presents a telling example of how the technological balance in cruise missile development has shifted more in favor of offensive strikes at the expense of a once reliable defensive capability. As such, the ease and precision with which one of the world’s most closely guarded facilities were struck, shows that based on the widespread availability of current technologies, it is perhaps more reliable to count on a missile system’s offensive strike capabilities. Consequently, the opportunity cost of investing in and developing expensive missile defense shields based on this scenario becomes tremendously higher.

These lessons provide valuable strategic import to another nearby region which is also brimming with tensions amongst two extremely well equipped and militarily capable states. This refers to the South Asian region, where both India and Pakistan also seem headed towards a dangerous escalation of hostilities. As a result, both countries would do well to consider the lessons emanating from the above-mentioned Saudi experience. For instance, like Saudi Arabia, India has also been on a military spending spree over the last decade, importing some of the world’s most advanced weapons systems from across the world. Its massive economic growth has given it license to pursue a robust military modernization program that is keenly focused on enhancing its power projection capabilities. However, again like Saudi Arabia, India’s military also remains untested and risks being termed another ‘glitter force’ that is more concerned with procuring arms as a matter of prestige as opposed to operational efficacy. This for instance was clear during India’s aerial engagement with Pakistani Air Force jets in March, during which a sophisticated Israeli origin missile fired by India’s air defenses downed one of India’s own Russian made Mi-17 helicopters. Such lack of operational readiness and blind faith in untested systems is evident in both the Saudi and Indian experience highlighted above.

Specifically, regarding the US made Patriot batteries used by the Saudis and the Israeli made Spyder missiles used by India, the above incidents have shown that the efficacy and reliability of these systems in the real-time conflicts of today is quite patchy at best. If anything, any form of over-reliance on these systems runs the risk of a grave miscalculation which in effect is multiplied by the regional complexities of both their respective security environments. These miscalculations are already on display in the increasingly volatile Middle East, as the Western backed and Saudi led military alliance is just realizing. With the vulnerability of such missile defense systems now increasingly evident, there has also arguably been an element of deterrence that has been further reinforced. Consequently, the path to de-escalation appears a lot more rational than one which may escalate towards all-out war. The case of South Asia too was similar where the aerial engagement between nuclear weapons capable India and Pakistan, also ultimately reinforced the latter’s conventional deterrent while exposing gaps in the former’s much touted aerial defenses.

Yet, considering that the case of South Asia remains infinitely more precarious due to the presence of two adversarial nuclear weapons states, the above described developments pose additional yet considerably more important implications when applied to the region’s nuclear deterrence framework. In effect, they erode the belief that ballistic missile defense systems can serve as the backbone to what many a state would consider a winnable nuclear war. These primarily comprise of Nuclear Weapons States such as the US and India which in the recent past have increasingly relied on concepts such as counterforce, pre-emption and precision as key themes within their official military thinking. All under the premise that Missile defense shields offer a reliable and credible defense against an adversary’s pre-emptive or secondary nuclear strikes as part of their strategic calculus. India’s much vaunted purchase of the Russian made S-400 system presents a clear example of such a strategy.

In contrast however, the fallibility and faltering reliability of such air defence systems shows the immense dangers of adopting such an approach within scenarios that have the potential of irreversibly altering life on earth as we know it. Considering how peace and stability in the South Asian region is precariously balanced between Pakistan and India’s nuclear deterrence framework, the unreliability and increasing fallibility of missile defense systems thus warrant a serious re-evaluation of the strategic calculus of both nuclear weapons capable India and Pakistan.  

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Protracted Asymmetric Geopolitical Conflict

Dayan Jayatilleka

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Each of us has his own definition of “geo-history”, and mine is the interface of the “geopolitical” and the “world-historical.”

We are marked by two anniversaries, that of the start of WW II in 1939 and its end in 1945. Fascism was a unique regime of terror, with a strategy of unbridled ‘exterminism’ and therefore constituted a unique political evil in world history. However, outside of its type of regime, strategy and tactics, was its ‘grand strategic’ goal also unique or was it not? Is there a resemblance or homology between, on the one hand, the doctrine of Ein Reich, the telos of world domination, a Thousand Year Reich, and the military moves of Germany and its Axis partners in the run-up to WWII, and on the other, that of a unipolar world order and global military expansionism; of open-ended unipolar global leadership? Is there a continuity or homology between on the one hand, the wartime US Grand Area planning for the postwar world (the documents of which were unearthed by Noam Chomsky), and the present Indo-Pacific strategy and on the other hand, the notorious earlier search for Lebensraum? Is the Indo-Pacific strategy an insistence on “maritime Lebensraum”?

If the answer is yes, and the two paradigms can be superimposed upon each other, then history provides only one answer: the united front and its extension, a global grand alliance. But a united front and grand alliance with whom, to what end?

Politics is combat. International politics is international combat. By the “suicide” of the Soviet Union (that post-mortem verdict was Fidel Castro’s), the Empire was unbound and it is now threatening world peace and the future of humanity itself. Every single arms control agreement (bar one) has been unilaterally renounced, but before that came the rollback of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements with the destruction of former Yugoslavia and the expansion of NATO. Now the empire seeks to dominate the entire global theatre in all possible spheres. This should not come as a shock or surprise. It is almost a law of physics (perhaps it should be called ‘geophysics’) that once unwisely unbound, the Empire would uncoil, spread, expand, and seek to dominate—in short, that the Empire would seek to behave as an empire.

The geohistorical question facing humanity today is how to constrain the Empire, but not return to the old delusions of how to do so. The Empire must be initially counterbalanced and then constrained– bound– permanently, until, as in the case of the Roman Empire, there is a benign change of beliefs (in this case, political) from within its own society, its own citizenry and not as before, a change in its external posture which proves in the long geo-historical term, to have been merely ephemeral, conjunctural, even tactical.

The Empire’s strategy as concerns Russia is quite simple to understand. It is a re-run of the strategy that enabled them to prevail in the Cold War. It is to provoke Russia into an arms race and exceed prudent spending limits, cause economic hardship and generate enough discontent that the citizenry, especially the young, will agitate, thereby causing psychological exhaustion and catalyzing peaceful democratic “regime change”, bringing into office a capitulationist/collaborationist administration sooner or later, in the wake of the end of President Putin’s term. Meanwhile, what is being played out in Hong Kong foreshadows the geohistorical endgame envisaged by the Empire for China and Eurasia as a whole.

By its global offensive, imperialism has potentially overstretched itself morally, ethically and politically. Not since Vietnam has imperialism had a potential target profile which is so large and so exposed. The targeting of Iran when that country has not violated the JCPOA can be turned into a massive indictment on the twin grounds of reason and logic as well as of natural justice. Similarly, the targeting of Venezuela can be exposed for the absurdity that someone who did not even run for Presidential office should be recognized as the legitimate President of a country. So also, the unilateral withdrawal from arms control agreements can be exposed for the danger this poses to humanity.

One of the most important principles of asymmetric political resistance is the identification of the most important strategic real estate as the moral high ground. The moral or moral-ethical high ground is the seizure and occupation of that terrain of argument which is recognized and recognizable as more rational, reasonable and of broader benefit to humanity, assuring “the greatest good of the greatest number” according to universal values and norms and not merely national or regional values and norms.

The main axial routes and themes of the political struggle should be Peace and Sovereignty. Firstly, these are themes that have a universal or near-universal resonance. Secondly, they allow the critic to fight for and occupy the moral high ground because the West has only a toehold on the moral high ground in all these cases. Thirdly, they are also the main achievements of humanity that are threatened by the Western offensive. Fourthly, they are themes that are likely to have resonance among peoples the world over, albeit with greater or lesser emphasis in different areas of the globe.

This great struggle cannot be waged with the guiding ideology solely of or governed solely by “State Interest” or “National Interest.” It can only be waged by the recovery of the spirit of “internationalism” that was present in the entire Soviet period. It is little appreciated that Stalin, the father of ‘Socialism in One Country,’ and political leader of the Great Patriotic War waged an international campaign against fascism. Even in periods of isolation and siege, Stalin’s perspectival approach was never one of a cultural or civilizational preoccupation. The struggle for Peace and Sovereignty, Against Interventionism and Global War, requires the building of global opinion and a global movement.

A contemporary Realist would immediately grasp the opportunity which has opened up in post-Cold War history, namely of compensating at least partially for the loss of those territories and Russia’s Western buffer, the rollback of Yalta and Potsdam and the USSR’s wartime gains and the advance of the NATO borders up to Russia, by the geostrategic gains on the Eastern front through the renewal of partnership with China. Obviously, this has been recognized and acted upon but it has yet to be optimized by the kind of diverse yet solid strategic relationships that the USA has through NATO in the West, and Japan and many other states in other parts of the world. A Realist would recommend a re-visiting, retrieval and revision of Article 1 of the 30 Treaty signed by Stalin and Mao, which recognizes that the security of Russia and China are indivisible and that any aggression against one will be regarded as aggression against the other and responded to accordingly.

There is a contradiction between the Western project of the encirclement of Russia and the intellectual response to that encirclement. One of the reasons for that contradiction is the fact that academies and think tanks have been shaped and formed by and sometimes in the decades of ‘peaceful coexistence’ and later ‘détente’ with the West and are almost structurally unprepared for the change in the global geopolitical-geostrategic ‘ecology’ as it were. These institutions were formed or reshaped by party edict as adjuncts of the tasks of negotiation with the West and the competition (which became enmity for a period) with China. They are structurally oriented towards the West; their institutional faces are turned westwards. Their entire spirit and ethos are those of partnership with the West and suspicion of China stemming from the 1960s and 1970s.

Institutions need to reflect the tasks of the new times, those of facing the West as an adversary in a protracted Cold War encompassing a global hybrid war; facing encirclement by the West and the global offensive of the West. Perhaps new joint analytical and academic institutions should evolve as intellectual-scientific superstructures of the SCO, BRICS, the Astana process and most importantly the partnership with China. A Russo-Sino joint think-tank or ensemble of think-tanks of Advanced Studies, as an intellectual microcosm or advanced prototype of a strategic alliance (not merely a strategic partnership) seems an imperative need.

The threat to Russia is nothing less than deeply, profoundly existential. If Iran is disaggregated by military action two things will result simultaneously. In a small scale equivalent of the collapse of the USSR and the dawning of the unipolar moment after the Cold War ended, there will be a dramatic shift of the balance of forces within the global Islamic community or ummah, to the Wahhabi/Salafists, just as in return to pre-1979, Western power is projected right back into an arena dangerously proximate to Russia’s ‘soft underbelly’ as the western analysts have always seen it. The intermediate ‘buffer state’ may not always remain so. Any deep damaging of Iran will also have global grand strategic implications of tightening the encirclement of Eurasia and weakening China.

Iran’s capacity for deterrence and if deterrence fails, its capacity for prolonged resistance and the same of Venezuela, will decide the level of resistance far away from Russia’s frontlines. If Afghanistan ended the USSR by bleeding it white, then the most effective Western policy in that theatre was to equip the so-called mujahidin with shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles to neutralize Soviet air power. If the USSR had not been so enmeshed in détente as to hold back the SAM-6s from and provide only a minimum supply of SAM-7s to the Vietnamese, then the damage inflicted on the US may have been such that it could not have gone on the offensive in Afghanistan a mere three years after the withdrawal from Saigon. While the US had no compunction in providing shoulder-fired to the Afghan mujahidin, with whom they had nothing in common ideologically, knowing full well that they would cause Soviet casualties especially among pilots, the USSR did have compunctions in providing SAM-6 batteries and a far more generous quantity of SAM-7s to the Vietnamese who were ideological comrades. The Vietnamese used to wryly remark to those of us in the Vietnam solidarity movement in Asia, that had the USSR provided them with the quantity and quality of air defense missiles that it gave the Arab states in the same period, the early 1970s, the Vietnamese would certainly have used them more effectively and with less losses than did the Arab armies.

That is perhaps the best single piece of explanatory evidence as to why the US recovered so fast from the Vietnam defeat while the USSR unilaterally withdrew from the Cold War and collapsed. It was a matter of will, and the consistent clarity of the US that the USSR was the enemy, and the determination to prevail over it. Later, the successor state of the USSR, the Russian state, with the Russian armed forces as its core, was seen as the enemy—even when the Russian administration and leadership may have been seen as a useful quasi-ally, partner and even ‘friend.’ Thus, on the questions of Iran and Venezuela, a contemporary Russian ‘dialectical and historical Realist’ analysis would consider a ‘reverse Brzezinski.’

China appears caught in a contradiction within an irony. The contradiction is that having entered the world capitalist order dominated by the West and become a major player within it, it now finds itself vulnerable to both economic and military threats simply because it proved to be strong enough to be an economic competitor but not strong enough to prevent, deter or prevail over a military build-up triggered by the inherently hierarchical and hegemonistic character of the system it had bought into. The irony is that China had found itself caught in a contradiction because it had forgotten Mao’s theory of contradictions which draws a fundamental distinction between antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions. China regarded the competition between itself and the West as a purely economic and therefore non-antagonistic contradiction, but the world system being not only an economic system but one of power, China’s peaceful rise was perceived by the West not as a ‘friendly’ or non-antagonistic contradiction but precisely as an antagonistic one, to be responded to not merely by economic means but also by military means, namely the biggest build-up of an armada in recent history through the Indo-Pacific strategy.

The irony is a dual one, because it was China that first cautioned the USSR about the idealistic and utopian nature of the project of “peaceful economic competition” with the West, but later pursued it with greater zeal and success than the USSR ever did or could. In the 1960s and 1970s, China had established a methodology of identifying the contradictions in the world at any given period and went on to hierarchize those contradictions. The listing would naturally shift over time and became irrationally anti-Soviet at one point; an irrationality that lasted a long period. However, the methodology of discerning, identifying and ranking contradictions was a realistic one, because it alerted China or anyone who used the dialectical framework, to the reality of antagonism, of hostility, in the world arena.

If the world’s foremost military power which disposes of the greatest destructive force known by history, regards one or more countries as adversaries, indeed as The Other(s), and backs up this policy perspective with the actual offensive disposition and concentration of men and material over time, then basic survival instinct should dictate that the states designated and treated as adversaries should seek to combine their military and non-military strengths to countervail and deter such a power which regards them with hostility and as threats. There are several such countries but only two such great powers, and these are Russia and China, in whichever order. Those who opine that Russia can slip out of this siege by living down a perception of a special relationship with China and associating as closely or even more closely with other great or big powers, seem to forget that Western moves against Russia’s interests preceded its renewed hostility to China.

The bottom line is that in any objective, dialectical and historical Realist analysis of Russia’s core interests, no relationship with Europe can be a substitute or even on par with a partnership with China. Not all vectors are equal, and some are certainly more equal than others.

Since neither Russia nor China can countervail the US-led Western alliance on its own, a closer equation is needed between the two than between either Russia or China and any other big power or powers. No other big power, however friendly, is the target of unremitting and adversarial Western action, and therefore will not take the same risks for either Russia or China as each of them should logically do for each other, since they both stand threatened and targeted. A Concert of Big Powers cannot be a substitute for a defensive United Front or coalition of states, of which the Russia-China relationship will be the main alliance, consisting of those sovereign states actively threatened in a military-economic sense by the West.

These are the strictly personal views of the author.

From our partner RIAC

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