Sunday, January 08, 2012

No Full Spectrum Here

Russian rearmament is focusing on nuclear weapons:

There's a growing debate in Russia over what to buy with the growing amount of cash available to rebuild the armed forces. So far, the government has directed most of the money at nuclear weapons (especially land and sea based ballistic missiles), nuclear submarines (with and without ballistic missiles), military satellites, air defense and strategic communications. But critics point out that most of the Russian military activity in the past two decades has been fighting Islamic terrorists in the Caucasus. Backers of the current spending patterns point out that it's only nuclear weapons that can really defend a nation as large as Russia.

Sounds familiar.

Unfortunately for Russia, they will find that nuclear weapons aren't useful for defending their country. Threatening to use nuclear weapons is only credible in the face of national destruction. Certainly, a Chinese army marching on Moscow would lead Russia to unleash nuclear weapons to prevent that. And Russian nukes would deter China from using their own nukes on Russia.

But China isn't going to march on Moscow. Will Russia really provoke a general nuclear war with China if the Chinese take a chunk of territory in the Far East but go no further?

Nuclear weapons deter the worst case scenario. And nukes help keep war in the conventional sphere for a longer period of time.

But effective conventional forces are needed to defend Russian territorial integrity in fights short of national extinction. Did Russian nuclear weapons keep Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from joining NATO? Did those nukes keep Ukraine in post-Soviet Russia? Did Russian nukes prevent America from arming Georgia to resist Russia and even send ships into the Black Sea when the embers of war were still hot to resupply Georgia after the Russo-Georgian War of 2008?

And if China "reclaims" some lost territory in the Far East, Russian threats to use nukes won't necessarily deter China. Because if Russia uses nukes in a massive retaliation against Chinese territory, China can threaten Moscow with nuclear destruction.

Perhaps Russia could get away with using tactical nuclear weapons on Chinese military units inside Russian territory. But that has the obvious downside of using nuclear weapons on Russian territory. Using "tactical" nukes on Chinese territory could be indistinguishable from strategic use of nukes from China's point of view.

Focusing on strategic nukes is surely the first step of Russian rearmament. But conventional ground forces are needed in the Far East to provide Russia with flexible response options.

We've gone through these debates already. National defense isn't cheap.

Hmm. Maybe we need to learn from Russia, too. We still understand the flexible response thing, since we still boast of being able to fight anywhere along the conflict spectrum even after force level reductions. Maybe we need to learn that quantity has a quality all its own.