Any new readers joining this blog for the first time are probably wondering what this JFK guy is doing writing about the political issues relating to deterrence, Vladimir Putin and the American military budget. If so – good question. The answer is that my basic interest is history, especially Cold War history, and what we can learn from that experience. Admittedly I have a more personal interest in the JFK, MLK and RFK assassinations since I “was there for that” and JFK saved all our lives with his decision making during the Cuban missile crisis. But I was also there for pretty much all the Cold War, albeit very young in its earlier years, and I have a personal perspective on that as well. So – having addressed that – I’ll move forward to post number two in what I anticipate is a three post series.
In order to fully appreciate the “elephant in the wings” statement in my most recent post, it’s necessary to explore some of the military spending issues which are beginning to evolve out of what is increasingly beginning to look like an East/West confrontation reminiscent of the Cold War. It’s a confrontation which is already driving new deployments at sea, in Europe and even in the Artic.
Previously I’ve mentioned the surge, largely unremarked in the general media, in military assistance programs and partnerships – in dozens of countries, primarily across Africa. Many people would be amazed to find the extent to which State National Guard units are partnering and training with armies across that continent – the media monitors combat boots on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia quite closely but little is written about the growth of “peaceful” military assistance which has grown to a level which appears to be comparable to what was going on in Latin America during the 1960’s and 1970’s. That seemed pretty innocuous at first, a standard response to the fears of communist expansion then and to jihadi terrorism now. The end result in Latin America was support for a series of military dictatorships that turned to death squads and killed hundreds of thousands of people. Hopefully we will avoid that sort of thing this time around in Africa.
What I’m really focusing on here are other types of deployments, those of conventional military forces. During the Cold War we routinely conducted exercises sending B-29 and B-27 SAC squadrons to Europe, and occasionally to Asia. These days a couple of B-52’s, B-1’s or B-2’s, can carry the destructive power of one of those earlier squadrons – and now we are routinely sending them to Europe and into the Pacific.
I’m not saying I oppose such deployments, but it’s something that had ceased in the mid 90’s and has now reemerged as a standard practice. Along with the revitalization of forward bases, it’s becoming an expense (and a crew demand) that we thought had been relegated to the past. In addition, Air National Guard units have begun a series of deployments to Eastern Europe and Baltic countries, both to support routine NATO air defense patrols and to participate in joint confidence building exercises following Russian activities in and around the Ukraine. The same is true in terms of Army forward basing in Europe and the ground force training/exercises which I have written about earlier. All in all, we are seeing a “return to Europe”, not yet at the scale of the sixties and seventies but certainly one which negates earlier initiatives to draw down force postures in Europe and close bases there. In fact certain air bases which were scheduled for closure are now either being taken off the list or actually receiving new units – particularly air assets to support tactical and rapid deployment forces. The scale of military exercises in both Europe and the Pacific is expanding, and we are even returning to regions, in particular the Artic, that nobody had seriously considered as a combat theatre since the 1950’s.
All this is expensive, all of it further strains the military budgets (and service personnel whose foreign deployment time and number of overseas tours has risen dramatically). But the real exposure for massive new spending is just now beginning to come in front of Congress and it is most definitely being driven by Mr. Putin and his strategic posturing. Putin’s turn to promotion of a western threat and appeal to Russian nationalism has been key to his surge in popularity; his “seizure” of the Russian media has made Russian military might a national topic, and source of pride.
However his turn to strategic modernization and “force projection” serves as a trigger for calls for equivalent spending in the West, especially in terms of the American strategic weapons systems. If you think that my description of his “force projection” is overstated, perhaps someone can give me a sane explanation of why the Russian Navy would deploy a ballistic missile sub to cruise right outside French territorial waters?
So what does all this mean, well it means that either the next Congress is going to have to deal (or more likely continue to ignore) the reality that the American strategic weapons systems have indeed become dated. That goes without saying when you look at B-52 bombers (a class of aircraft which first went into service in the 1950’s) as still flying as one of our strategic delivery platforms, at Minutemen missile systems as another class which went into service in the 1960’s and at the aging of the Navy’ nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarine force. Is the nuclear triad still important – one could have argued against that at the end of the 1990’s, it’s harder to do so with both China and India launching new ballistic missile subs and North Korea desperately trying to do so.
In the next post I’ll focus on the new strategic investments that will come before Congress, and on the broader subjects of deterrence, parity, and decapitation. Today’s politics and debates address none of those topics but they will become very real questions/issues during the next two to three years and it will be interesting to see of today’s politics turns (as Russia’s did at the beginning of this decade) back to a focus on national security rather than social issues as the political dynamic. Or more precisely will “gaps” once again become a driving force for the sorts of military spending we saw in during the Eisenhower and Reagan administrations?