In June 2014, the Pentagon conducted a “table top” exercise – a sort of war game between Russia and NATO. The scenario was Russian pressure on NATO member Estonia and Latvia. Would NATO be able to defend those countries?
“The results were dispiriting,” Julia Ioffe writes in Foreign Policy. Even if all US and NATO troops stationed in Europe were dispatched to the Baltics – including the 82nd Airborne, which is supposed to be ready to go on 24 hours’ notice – the US would lose.
“We just don’t have those forces in Europe,” explains a senior US general. “Then there’s the fact that the Russians have the world’s best surface-to-air missiles and are not afraid to use heavy artillery.”
The Russian ‘victory’ was not a one-off. The Americans conducted the exercise as many as 16 times, under various scenarios, all favourable to NATO, always with the same conclusion. The Russians were simply invincible.
In this backdrop, Turkey’s rash act of shooting down a Russian Air Force jet portends grave tidings for NATO. Because Turkey is a NATO member, if the Russian Air Force pounds the living daylight out of the Turks, at least in theory all the other members of the US-led military bloc are treaty-bound to come to its defence.
Although the chances that the Americans will risk New York for Istanbul are smaller than small – which leaves a very nervous Turkey on its own – one can never rule out the possibility of a NATO hothead wanting to attack Russia.
A nuclear exchange will undoubtedly have catastrophic consequences for both sides – and perhaps the entire planet – but there are certain factors that could skew the fighting field in Russia’s favour.
According to data exchanged on October 1, 2014 by Moscow and Washington, Russia has 1,643 deployed strategic warheads, compared with 1,642 for the US. Marginal difference in numbers but Russian land-based strategic forces have an explosive yield that is an order of magnitude greater than anything in the US armoury.
Moscow’s primary deterrent weapon is the mighty SS-18, a single one of which can destroy an area the size of New York – the state, not just the city. To get an idea of the destructive power of the SS-18, just look at the nuclear weapon the US used to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The Hiroshima bomb was a primitive 15 kiloton warhead and yet it wiped out a city of 70,000 in a few seconds. The SS-18 – code named Satan by NATO – carries 10 warheads, each having a yield of 750 to 1000 kiloton). Some of these missiles carry a single 20,000 kiloton warhead – that’s 1333 times Hiroshima.
At the same time, 80 per cent of the American population resides on the eastern and western seaboards, so a few well-aimed nuclear missiles can end all human life in these densely populated coastal strips. Russia has a population only half of the US but it’s dispersed widely across the country’s massive landmass so that pockets of human inhabitation can survive both a first as well as a second strike.
Russia has another trump card up its sleeve – its supersonic bomber fleet of Tupolev Tu-160s. These Mach 2 plus aircraft can take off from well-defended airbases located deep in the heart of Russia, fly over the North Pole, launch nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from safe standoff distances over the Atlantic, and return home to watch the destruction on CNN.
That’s assuming CNN will be around. For, the Russian strategic bomber fleet can singlehandedly wipe out every major city in the US.
It is because the Americans know the capability of Russia’s nuclear forces that they have tried hard to eliminate the doomsday weapons like the SS-18 through arms limitation talks.
Before the use of strategic weapons, Russia could cripple forward NATO bases with tactical – or battlefield – nukes. Russian military doctrine emphasises the use of small-yield nuclear weapons as a war fighting tool early on in a conflict in order to stun and confuse NATO forces, impacting their ability to think and act coherently.
After tactical nuclear artillery decimates forward deployed NATO military troops, Russia could deliver small-yield warheads via intermediate range missiles that could devastate the next line of military bases, while limiting civilian casualties. At this point the US would be faced with the option of retaliating with strategic weapons and face a devastating response from Moscow. A good guess is the option won’t be used.
For, no American president would risk a single US city for a dozen European ones. John F. Kennedy didn’t risk it in 1962 for the same reason – the loss of even one city was too many.
State of US strategic forces
How reliable is the US Strategic Nuclear Command? If you are an American, you won’t feel so reassured after reading that Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton both “reportedly lost the launch code cards that presidents are expected to have on them at all times – Clinton for months, according to a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Carter allegedly sent his out with a suit to the cleaners”.
In any conflict – more so in a high stakes nuclear standoff – morale, training and discipline are key factors. Russian officers who have the job of deciding when and where to aim their nuclear missiles include PhD holders who are required to think on their feet. On the other hand, American personnel who have the same role are beset with alcoholism, depression and cheating.
Nothing can sugar coat the crisis plaguing the US strategic forces. In October 2013, Major General Michael Carey, responsible for the command of 450 nuclear missiles, was fired after drunken behaviour on a visit to Russia. Days earlier, another military officer, Vice Admiral Tim Giardina, with high-level responsibility for the country’s nuclear arsenal, was relieved of his duties after he was caught using counterfeit gambling chips at an Iowa casino.
Think that’s frightening? Check this out. A US Air Force general who supported the command mission to provide nuclear forces for the US Strategic Command was an alcoholic. General David C. Uhrich kept a vodka bottle in his desk and repeatedly drank on duty, so much so that another officer told investigators that “if he did not have his alcohol, the wheels would come off”.
The rot has trickled down to US missileers who have a culture of cheating on competency tests, endangering the readiness off American ICBMs. Again, in February 2014, the US Navy revealed it was looking into allegations that enlisted sailors cheated on tests involving the nuclear reactors that power its submarines and aircraft carriers.
The US strategic forces are also suffering from systemic neglect, with its ICBM bases in North Dakota and Montana reporting “leaking roofs”. The missileers, who work in blast-proof bunkers located 60 feet underground, are forced to defecate in buckets and urinate in jugs, and bring it all back up at the end of 24 hours. How ready these personnel will be when they have to react to a Russian missile strike is questionable.
On the other hand, Russian Strategic Forces are treated as the very elites in the military. The quality of Russian personnel can be deduced from the actions of Russian strategic forces officer Lt Colonel Stanislav Petrov. On September 26, 1983, a Russian early-warning satellite indicated five US nuclear missile launches. Tensions were high between Washington and Moscow after the downing of a South Korean airliner weeks earlier, and Petrov had only minutes to respond. With little additional information to go on, he deemed the readings a false alarm, reasoning that “when people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles”.
This is precisely why highly qualified personnel matter. When you’re placed squarely in the cross hairs of the enemy’s nuclear missiles and you’re holed up in a bunker 60 feet below the earth’s surface, then nervousness, insomnia and depression are part of your daily life. Unable to cope, less educated personnel will abuse alcohol and drugs and even exhibit criminal behaviour. On the other hand, educated and motivated officers will keep their cool even in the event of a thermonuclear showdown.
For, a nuclear war may not necessarily involve a quick exchange of ballistic missiles. According to War Scare: Russia and America on the Nuclear Brink, by Peter Vincent Pry, Director of the US Nuclear Strategy Forum, the Russian Strategic Forces are trained to “launch pre-emptive or retaliatory nuclear strikes, survive a hammer blow from a massive enemy nuclear attack, launch follow-on nuclear strikes, and supervise military operations in a protracted nuclear war, expected to last weeks or months”.
In such a drawn out, harrowing scenario, Russia’s nuclear warfare specialists clearly have the edge.
Reflexive Control: Ultimate Weapon
Disinformation, camouflage and stratagem are some of the ways one can influence the outcome of a war. The Russians have taken these ancient arts to another level through the use of the theory of Reflexive Control (RC).
Developed by Russian military strategists in the 1960s, RC aims to convey information to an opponent that would influence them to voluntarily make a decision desired by the initiator of the action. It can be used against either human or computer-based decision-making processors. Russia employs it not only at the strategic and tactical levels in war but also in the geopolitical sphere.
Russian Army Major General M.D. Ionov was among the early proponents of RC, having pursued it since the 1970s. In an article in 1995, he noted that the objective of reflexive control is to force an enemy into making decisions that lead to his defeat by influencing or controlling his decision-making process.
Ionov considers this a form of high art founded of necessity on an intimate knowledge of human thinking and psychology, military history, the roots of the particular conflict, and the capabilities of competing combat assets.
Timothy L. Thomas writes in the Journal of Slavic Studies: “In a war in which reflexive control is being employed, the side with the highest degree of reflex (the side best able to imitate the other side’s thoughts or predict its behaviour) will have the best chances of winning. The degree of reflex depends on many factors, the most important of which are analytical capability, general erudition and experience, and the scope of knowledge about the enemy.”
If successfully achieved, reflexive control over the enemy makes it possible to influence their combat plans, their view of the situation, and how they fight. RC methods are varied and include camouflage (at all levels), disinformation, encouragement, blackmail by force, and the compromising of various officials and officers.
According to Robert C. Rasmussen of the Center for International Maritime Security, “It is exactly this type of application of Reflexive Control that a young Vladimir Putin would have learned in his early development at the 401st KGB School and in his career as a KGB/FSB officer.”
Because every battle is first fought in the head before a bullet is fired on the ground, Russia’s long experience with RC would be a key factor in its existential struggle with the US.