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How We Should Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
by Pete O'Brien
How should we respond to a Russian invasion of Ukraine in the coming weeks?
Economic sanctions and political sanctions will be imposed. Though it will be interesting to watch that play out, as oil and natural gas prices spike and Russia pulls in more money. Natural gas flows from Russia into Europe; grain flows from Ukraine and Belarus and Russia into Europe. We’ll see what impact economic sanctions have, but what if they end up hurting our allies more than they hurt Russia?
What else should we be thinking about?
Russia will remain at the top “the list” for a while. But right below Russia sits, or should sit, China. And when Russia moves out of the top spot, China moves in. Not climate change and not domestic terrorism. They are not numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 on any serious human’s list - assuming they are keeping up with current events. Leaving Russia and China (or China and Russia) at the top of the list, the rest of the list should include: Iran, Islamic extremism, North Korea, the Southern Border, and Energy independence. Add on reining in federal spending. You now have a monstrous list of tasks.
So, what do we do about Russia? And China?
The answer, as with many things we have been struggling with over the last 70 years, begins with this: Eisenhower was right…
He was right about deterrence, about the dangers of the rise of the military-industrial complex, about avoiding limited wars in Asia.
Eisenhower set the groundwork for what became the successful implementation of the containment strategy. It originated under Truman, but Truman didn’t really set it in motion; Eisenhower did.
And at the center of it was the idea that we - the United States - needed to rein in military operations overseas and rein in military spending, which when he took office was more than 14% of GDP. Eisenhower forced a truce in Korea - by threatening the use of nuclear weapons - and then proceeded to drive down defense spending to 9% of GDP by 1960. Defense spending was down to 5% by 1990 and now stands at less than 4%.
How did he do that? By shifting much of the US defense strategy to a focus on deterrence, nuclear deterrence.
Eisenhower recognized two key points: first, we could not then, nor can we now, be armed up and ready to fight another World War II. There were, and are many things that we can do, but when we consider that World War II involved the use of fiat money to double the size of the US economy, and then spending 40% of that huge new economy on defense, we realize that it simply is impossible to build huge, conventional forces and sustain them for any period of time. Second, nuclear weapons change everything. When we faced Germany and Japan they didn’t have nuclear weapons. Facing the Soviets in the 1950s, particularly after Korea, was an entirely different problem.
Facing China today, as well as Russia, and Iran, and North Korea, present additional complex problems. Three of them have nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them to the US. The fourth, Iran, will, undoubtedly, soon have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to the US.
This means that the strategic models we’ve used before need to be changed; great powers - nuclear powers - cannot directly confront each other on the battlefield.
Earlier this week someone, identified as a “senior administration official,” commented on how the administration would deal with Russia by “going right to the top of the escalation ladder and staying there.” Whoever that is, that person needs to be fired.
The top of the escalation ladder is a full-blown nuclear engagement. Apologies to Stanley Kubrick and Dr. Strangelove, we don’t really want to be there. We find ourselves here because 4 of the last 5 administrations substantively ignored our nuclear deterrence.
Ukraine gave up its - huge - nuclear arsenal because of our “guarantee,” and the result is that we are now edging closer to a war with Russia.
The US spent most of the last 30 years ignoring its own nuclear arsenal and that arsenal has, as a result, become less credible to would-be foes, and more alien to our own leadership.
The US apathy to its nuclear deterrence role has meant that the US nuclear “umbrella” - a concept that Eisenhower deeply understood - is decreasingly credible, particularly in light of the Clinton - Obama strategic miscalculation on Ukraine.
Where does that leave us now?
We must recognize that we cannot, as we are now manned and equipped, credibly deter Russia in Europe without recourse to nuclear threats.
We must recognize that by not maintaining the credibility of our nuclear umbrella we’ve invited our enemies to be more bold and our allies to rely more and more on their own. That will translate over time into more nuclear weapon states, or more wars.
We need to invest the necessary funds to modernize our nuclear forces - now - so that they’re survivable against current and future threats. Our nuclear force also needs to be more flexible; a credible, flexible, survivable nuclear force is one that has a lower likelihood of being used.
We should consider deploying nuclear strike assets to Taiwan immediately, and then inform Beijing an attack on Taiwan will be considered as an attack on the US.
We need to sit down and develop a concept of war that allows us to, as we did with the Soviet Union, oppose these nuclear powers without direct confrontation. This would have been a lot easier if we had started this in the early 1990s; from a strategic standpoint that was a wasted decade.
We have a host of complex issues - border integrity, energy, the debt. We need to address them. Some of them - energy for example - would be best addressed by government getting out of the way.
And DOD has a great deal of money and a large percentage of it is horribly spent. And everyone knows it. Personnel mismanagement, bloated staffs, and horribly complex and expensive procurement systems are just parts of the problem.
Great power competition is expensive - every great power has figured that out over time. There are only two long term answers to the issue of cost: the first is to fight it out, which is very expensive to start (you need to arm up) and then tremendously expensive because wars are expensive. And if you lose this is catastrophically expensive - you’re probably going to be destroyed, either quickly or slowly. The second is less expensive but requires hard leaders. Because what it requires is the willingness to accept that there are spheres of influence. Said differently, there are places where you simply can’t challenge the other power with any meaningful expectation of success.
Going forward, the lessons from this mess with Russia include:
We need to recognize that national security actually is our number 1 task
We need to stop being everywhere because it feels good
We need to put our real alliances in order
We need to reassert the nuclear umbrella - quickly
Nuclear weapons are horrible weapons. But they are here. As has been observed in the past: they cannot be “uninvented.” We need to recognize that fact and accept that we’re now dealing with a number of enemies that have nuclear weapons. We need to develop our strategies, as well as our defenses, accordingly. We cannot ignore them away.
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...