Military and non-military escalation into nuclear war
by R.Lesnoix for The Saker blog
5 May, 2018
Recent events have put the prospect of nuclear war back into the limelight. We believed we had left this behind when the cold war ended. We were wrong. Not only is it back, it is back with a vengeance. We now face the real possibility of non-military confrontations escalating into all-out nuclear war. This worries me as it seems that the thresholds for these are both lower and more obfuscated. What’s worse is that at least some of the people who may trigger this appear to be both ignorant of these risks and have a less than desirable level of competence.
Nuclear war was typically associated with one of two scenario’s: either a gradual escalation of conventional warfare into (total) nuclear war or an all-out first strike. A first strike could be launched in the hope (or expectation) of destroying enough of the enemies nuclear firepower to make the counterstrike ‘survivable’ or it could be launched to preempt such a first strike by the enemy. If a side feels that it’s own counterstrike capabilities are vulnerable to a first strike, the chance of them launching a preemptive strike go up considerably should they feel threatened.
Still, the second scenario typically also involves an initial conventional military engagement. This would likely be a relatively small scale confrontation. Instead of the gradual escalation of the first scenario in this case one side skips the intermediate steps and goes straight for the jugular. This can be either the side who considers themselves strong enough to get away with a first strike or the side that feels it’s weaker and needs to use-it-or-lose-it.
The risk of the opponent opting for a first strike scenario is why sane people avoid any military confrontation between nuclear powers, especially between nuclear superpowers. Those with even a modest amount of military expertise or insight realize how easily even a small confrontation can get out of hand. During the Cuba-crisis in the 60’s a US warship dropped depth charges to force a Soviet submarine that was stalking the task-force to the surface, not to actually sink it. The Soviet crew thought otherwise. The commander and the XO wanted to fire their nuclear torpedo’s in response to what they felt was a genuine attack. The political officer wasn’t so sure and refused to consent to a launch. All three had to agree before the weapons could be fired. The world was spared nuclear war by what amounts to a ‘minority report’.
Did something similar happen a few weeks ago? Were there dissenting voices within the US government that managed to ‘de-escalate’ the confrontation into a mutually face-saving ‘non-event’? Maybe we’ll find out some day what exactly happened, maybe we won’t. Some give credit to Mattis and Dunford for being the ‘sane’ ones. If they did intervene I’m not so sure ‘sane’ is the right description for their motivation in doing so. See, you don’t get to their level in the US military without being a ‘political’ general with all the baggage that comes with it.
As you know the level of corruption in the DoD is quite large. But what does that really mean? Most think of current and former generals consulting in some way for big business and steering procurements but not much else. The implications of the corruption go much further. If most or all of the the top echelons are corrupt and expect to continue this as private consultants once they leave the military they’ll need to have successors who will let them. While still on active duty they need to make sure their colleagues and subordinates won’t rat them out either. So it is in their interest to ensure promotions of the corrupt(able) and stall the careers of the more conscientious. The same applies at lower levels of the hierarchy. It’s unavoidable. The armed forces are therefor filled with officers who owe their careers not to their military competencies but to either their corruptibility or to being too stupid to notice.
It goes further. When corruption is so incorporated into an organization it becomes dysfunctional. Which means it still functions, just not how it is supposed to. It will malfunction unexpectedly and unpredictably. And often. It will regularly fail to meet even minimum standards of performance. Severe underperformance will be standard. Trying to ascertain the cause of specific failures will be illusive and ‘fuzzy’. Fixes don’t work and no-one tends to be held accountable. This also applies to the corporations on the other side of the corruption. Their organizations are likely to be dysfunctional too in varying degrees. If you doubt it, how about the development issues of these: the F35, the Zumwalt, the LCS, the FCS, the Ford, etc.? They are not surprising if you understand the deeper effects of widespread systemic corruption on organizations.
Mattis an Dunford made their careers during this period of endemic corruption. What does that tell you about them? At the very least they had to know and look away. The difference between them and many of their colleagues looks to be that they do have enough military competence to see what’s going on and what it means for the ability of the US armed forces to wage war. I believe that they know all too well how the decades of ever growing corruption have turned the US military into a force incapable of confronting a (near) peer without unacceptable, even catastrophic, losses. So even if they would win, it would be a Pyrrhic victory.
So if Mattis and Dunford did intervene, don’t ascribe them the virtues of saints just yet. It’s more likely they wanted a scenario they could sell as a success without publicly exposing just how overrated the US armed force are. In a way they are tightrope walkers. They must ‘sell’ US supremacy to the rest of the world on the one hand and on the other hand they need to contain those in their own government (and behind the screens) who actually believe the propaganda and require from the military things they can’t deliver. The Pentagon can’t exactly go around telling all of those in the margins of power what the true state of affairs is. So they juggle and scheme to keep up appearances. Their job is to maintain the perceptions (and not risk their exposure) that allow the Empire to continue to cow and subdue around the world.
They also need to keep the ‘small’ wars going off course. Those are what justifies the Pentagons insane budgets. Because the higher this budget the more money is available for graft and other sorts of corruption. The US DoD has become in large part a financial scam to transfer public funds (tax dollars) into private pockets. These private pockets include current and former military officers, politicians, lobbyists and of course corporate America. A real war with an opponent that can actually fight back and inflict losses too serious to hide might ruin this very profitable scam. Lots of people in influential positions don’t want this to end. People like Mattis and Dunford make sure it doesn’t.
The US DoD is now a front for embezzlements and fraud on a scale counted in trillions (over the decades). In this regard the ability to wage war is mostly relevant in as far as its perception allows for greater sums of tax-payer money to be transferred to the Pentagon. Real capability comes second. With all the funds that are being bled off there has to be a significant difference between stated capabilities and actual capabilities. The stated capabilities are based on the official budgets while the actual capabilities are based on a much smaller amount (due to corruption) and has to take the dysfunctionality of both the military and its suppliers/contractors into account. It’s the logical conclusion of accepting the notion that they are thoroughly corrupt and have been for decades.
So far they have only been fighting colonial wars against opponents with very limited military capabilities of their own. The discrepancy between perceived and actual US military power is not obvious from those wars (although you can tell some things are off if you look really close). The perceived ‘size’ of the ability to wage war justifies inflated operating costs. So more tax dollars that can be diverted into private pockets. From this perspective it doesn’t really matter if a warship is operational or not. It’s mere existence justifies more budget for upkeep. If it is kept fully operational that means less money spent on graft and corruption and more or maintenance, training and functional upgrades. That’s not how the scam works.
Again it’s tightrope walking for the top brass. They need to project power to cow and subdue abroad but they also need to find justifications for increased spending (not to be confused with budget for existing operating costs). Those two tasks clash. Are you all-powerful already or aren’t you? So they’ve been looking for enemies to scare the domestic audience with fanciful what-if’s into forking over more and more of their hard earned dollars. It worked well for a long time. But not now. Russia is a whole other kettle of fish. Russia pushes back in many ways including military. Which is why people like Mattis and Dunford say one thing domestically but do other things behind the screens like having their underlings coordinate with the Russians in Syria. I believe they have a vested interest in steering away from any (near) peer military confrontation. It risks the scam and their careers.
Don’t get me wrong, there are elements in the US armed forces that are quite good at what they do. Some weapon systems are impressive and among the best in the world. There are plenty of capable soldiers and officers (who are unlikely to advance past the rank of major and are typically found in the field, not in staff positions). And overall they are still quite powerful, possibly even number one although I personally doubt it. It’s just that they’re not nearly as strong as they want us to believe. Nor is it anywhere near the level that the huge sums spent on it would warrant. And while elements might perform well on their own, together they don’t.
So when I say overrated that is exactly what I mean, overrated. It does not equal non-existent or absent even though the term is all too often misinterpreted as such. US military power is much less than is commonly believed it is. In other words, it’s overrated. Maybe it’s me but I’m just not impressed. Sure, they have the numbers, but quality wise? I don’t think so. Add in the lack of proper training, deferred maintenance, effectively untested systems (‘tests’, if conducted at all, are highly scripted and performed under ideal conditions to get desired outcomes) and a continued reliance in peacetime on contractor representatives to keep critical systems running (especially in the Navy) and I can’t help but wonder how bad they really are.
It comes down to this, you cannot have it both ways. Either they are quite corrupt indeed which means they are also significantly overrated as a military force or they are as strong as they claim they are which means they can’t be as corrupt as commonly viewed. Which one do you pick?
The title of this piece talks about ‘escalation into nuclear war’. Let’s apply what I mentioned above to that. I tried to make clear in the first part that the risk of such an escalation due to purely military events, while very real, is also seriously overrated. The US military is a lot more vulnerable than commonly believed. This vulnerability will make it hard, if not impossible, for the Americans to keep a war against (near) peers conventional. Especially given their reliance on the Navy and Air Force for force projection and the current level of anti-ship and anti-air missiles (and EW) available to potential adversaries, catastrophic losses seem unavoidable for the Americans in a conventional peer-to-peer setting. Then what?
People like Mattis know this. They cannot afford a military conflict with a (near) peer because it is highly likely it would lead to a situation where they would either have to use nukes tactically or admit defeat. Defeat would not just mean losing the specific engagement or conflict, it would also jeopardize the scam and publicly expose the Empire as much weaker than perceived. Their ability to cow and subdue would suffer or even disappear. So they actively work to prevent such a scenario by avoiding (near) peer conflicts even if they need to work around the White House to do so. While it could still happen, there are plenty of idiots in Washington after all, I am more worried about the risks of non-military escalation into nuclear war, given those same idiots.
As I mentioned in the second and third paragraph, escalation into nuclear war is commonly associated with military confrontation. The public perception is that such an escalation only becomes an issue if there is some kind of military on military incident first. Unfortunately this perception is false. There are several non-military escalatory roads that can lead to that same destination. It starts with a misconception of what war is, or what acts of war are. These are not limited to military confrontations or acts by armed forces of one country.
Those of you familiar with this blog will know that you can make the case that the US and Russia are already at war. At the moment most of it is informational, a big chunk is economic and a small portion is ‘kinetic’. In addition to these categories you could also include covert operations (including assassinations and sabotage), cyber-warfare and diplomacy as non-military means through which war can be waged. All of these have the potential to escalate dramatically, even into nuclear war. Keep in mind though that these are unlikely to be used on their own but probably in some sort of combination with each other. This can create synergistic effects that may be hard to contain.
Let’s look closer at informational warfare. Words have power. Words can have enormous power. Words can also trap you. When the fake video’s out of Douma were published a tweet from the White House promised retribution. That made it very difficult for the Americans not to attack Syria. Not doing so would now look weak. And in American politics looking weak is a mortal sin. So even though they must have had at least serious doubts about the validity of the claims they went ahead. If they had said, “sorry our bad, we were fooled by the video’s” they would have looked only a little bit foolish. Now that it’s glaringly obvious that the chemical attack was faked they look much worse. And they have to stick to their story now. They can’t go back without major loss of face. They hope it will blow over without too much backlash. Worse, they may feel they need a bigger incident (Iran?) to cover this one.
Words can have unforeseen consequences. In the context of international relations it takes smart and calculating people to know what to say and what not to say and when to say it and when not to say it. It takes even smarter people to know when to take something back in order to prevent greater harm to oneself. Diplomacy is an art. There’s a very good reason why it has been so important throughout history. These days I see those smart and calculating people in Moscow. I don’t see them in Washington. One of the most important diplomatic posts in a country these days is that of permanent representative at the UN. If like me you thought it couldn’t get worse than Samantha Power, now we have Nikki Haley for the US. We’ll get back to her later.
Words can also twist peoples perception of reality, especially when repeated again and again. Take the blind fanaticism of the Hitler Jugend in the end phase of the second world war. They had grown up with the constant indoctrination and didn’t know anything else. They became zealots. An indoctrinated populace can be dangerous to yourself. They can force you into directions you never intended to go. This makes the constant accusations against Russia of interfering in and undermining of US democracy very dangerous. Be very, very wary if the Democrats come back to power in the near future. Just like Trump had to act on his Tweet about Douma, the Democrats will have to act on their vilification of Russia. Given how strained US-Russian relations already are that will come with considerable risk to all of us.
The most dangerous of the non-military means to wage war would in my opinion be cyber-warfare and economic warfare. Cyber-warfare is so dangerous because it is all to easy to attribute attacks to the wrong party. These can be false-flag attacks where the ‘victim’ attacks itself and uses these as justification for their own agenda. It can also be mistakenly attributed to the wrong party. Damaging cyberattacks by non-state actors for example could be blamed on Russia, Iran, China or North Korea. Any retaliation against them would in fact not be retaliatory but the opening salvo against an innocent party. They in turn would see it as an unprovoked attack on them and be justified to respond in kind. Enter a cycle of escalations. With cyber-attacks you could also deliberately try to shift the blame on someone else for exactly this reason. There are numerous ways how this could go very wrong unless handled delicately and wisely.
The biggest risk would have to come from economic warfare though. We rarely mention or even think of economic measures as a form of warfare but we should. If an economic measure by one or more governments leads directly or indirectly to the deaths of many people in another country, let’s say more than a million, would the suffering country be right as considering it an act of war? Off course they would. Well, the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq between 1991 and 2003 are thought to have caused around 1.5 million deaths. Iraq was off course to weak to do something about it. Well Russia isn’t. Do you seriously believe they would not retaliate if they where in Iraq’s shoes?
We also tend to make the mistake to think of these spheres as separate. In our minds economic sanctions don’t justify a military response or cyberattacks but why wouldn’t they? If sanctions threaten the lives of millions? A threat to the nation is a threat to the nation and you hit the enemy back where it hurts. If that means switching to different types of actions why not? When the US cut off Japans supply of oil from the East-Indies in 1941 that constituted an existential threat to the Japanese nation. Their economy and armed forces needed that oil or face ruin. It was a de-facto declaration of war against Japan. I’m pretty sure they felt it was. And that’s all that matters. You may disagree or it may not have been your intention but if the aggrieved party considers it to be an act of war and responds on that basis your disagreement is moot.
We wrongly tend to think of non-military measures against countries as relatively harmless. We certainly consider them to be far below any sort of direct military act on the ladder of escalatory steps. Just look at the history books on who started a given war. We blame the one who fired first, not the ones who cut the economic lifeblood of the other. See where that kind of thinking, that as long as you don’t ‘shoot’ it’s not really war, can get us in a lot of trouble? Type ‘economic genocide’ in your favorite search engine and see what you get. It’s a thing.
Unfortunately it’s not just all theory. Recently Nikki Haley had stated that new sanctions against Russia were to be announced the following Monday. Instead of announcing these new sanctions however the White House stated, through Larry Kudlow, that she had been ‘confused’ and ‘mistaken’. You may recall her public rebuttal that she was ‘not confused’. Talk about someone who can’t read between the lines and who can’t put her ego aside for the greater good. But she was probably right. New sanctions were most likely on the table. But then those plans were cancelled. Given Haley’s response this was likely something serious. So what happened? Why were the new sanctions scrapped?
Maybe it’s a coincidence but between Haley’s announcement and the White House backpedalling something interesting happened. The Russian foreign minister had an interview with the BBC. He said a lot things in that interview. One little quote has received less attention than it deserves:
Question: Do you feel you are in a new Cold War?
Sergey Lavrov: I think it’s worse.
Sergey Lavrov: Because during the Cold War there were channels of communication; and there was no obsession with Russophobia which looks like, you know, genocide by sanctions.
Genocide by sanctions. Words uttered by the Russian foreign minister. Someone who is not known for hyperbole or exaggeration. Someone who’s words matter. A lot.
Now let’s get back to Putins Presidential address of March 1st 2018 for another quote:
“I should note that our military doctrine says Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons solely in response to a nuclear attack, or an attack with other weapons of mass destruction against the country or its allies, or an act of aggression against us with the use of conventional weapons that threaten the very existence of the state. This all is very clear and specific.”
Putin mentions ‘an act of aggression against us with the use of conventional weapons that threaten the very existence of the state’. While not conducted with conventional weapons ‘genocide by sanctions’ would certainly qualify as an ‘act of aggression that threatens the very existence of the state’. That puts it awfully close to what the Russians themselves publicly state is a valid reason for responding with nuclear weapons. You could in fact make a case that economic sanctions are a form of ‘conventional weapons’.
It would go too far to state that Russia would likely respond with an nuclear first strike. It is likely though that they would respond with measures unacceptable to the US. These could be economic measures or something else entirely. What if the undersea cables that connect the US internet to the rest of the world would cease to function? Or what if the domestic energy network in the US would suddenly suffer major failures plunging large parts of the country in the dark? There are numerous non-military ways that they could use to try to ‘pull the plug’ on each other. Now if one were to get convinced the other is about to do just that who knows what action they might take? They might skip conventional military operations altogether.
Russia made it clear that they may use nuclear weapons first should the situation warrant it in their opinion. This year the US published its Nuclear Posture Review 2018. Like the Russians, they do not exclude first use. What’s also worrying is that their respective postures leave ambiguity over where they draw the line. This ambiguity may lead either side to seriously miscalculate the others likely response. Given the sort of people in Washington that would need to do the ‘calculating’ would you trust them to get the answer right? Please, let’s not get even close to that point.
The US main stream media is full of politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, accusing Russia of an ‘attack on the USA’ either because of alleged interference in the elections or unproven cyberattacks. While these are mainly for domestic consumption they also call for retaliatory measures such as more and more severe sanctions. Given the power of words and how hard it can be to take back earlier rhetoric that’s scary stuff. I can actually see the idiots in Washington talk themselves into a corner they can’t or won’t get out off and cross that line.
With regards to military escalation into nuclear war we have people like Mattis and Dunford to run interference no matter what their motivation is. When it comes to non-military acts of aggression against Russia (or China, Iran or North Korea) who do we have? Nikki Haley? John Bolton? Mike Pompeo? So yeah, I do worry a bit about getting into a nuclear war through non-military escalation.
R.Lesnoix is a concerned citizen who grew up during the Cold War under the constant fear of nuclear weapons. He is dismayed with the direction the western democracies are going in.