In the 1980s, president Ronald Reagan took the United States down the path of the strategic defense initiative known as Star Wars. It fundamentally changed the nature of strategic nuclear warfare to the point that it was an economical for the Soviet Union to continue to pursue the strategy of mutual assured destruction. It changed the world and ended the Cold War. Decades later, the descendant of one of the Soviet anti-aircraft defense missile systems from the era of the Red Menace is set to do the same to the world’s air forces.
Black Swans Rising
The S.400 is the evolution of area air defense systems only dreamt about in the days of the Cold War by the Voyska PVO Strany Air Defence Armies of the Soviet Union. This is a very capable missile system. It is a missile system that renders almost the entire inventory of older generation combat aircraft in the hands of any air force obsolete.
Fighter aircraft, command and control planes, drones and even stand off missiles are at risk from the talons of an S.400 generation class SAM. The Israelis found this out in the hard way Syria on February 10, 2018 losing a very advanced version F-16L to a storm of anti-aircraft defenses, “Dangerous Skies” Dennis Santiago, AmericaOutLoud.com.
You should realize that one-half to two-thirds of the cost of a modern combat aircraft is in avionics, the electronic systems that manage the offensive and defensive ability of the platform to operate in a hostile airspace. Most of the combat aircraft on this planet do not have sophisticated electronic warfare avionics. Even among the nations that do, the S.400 missile is still a threat for so-called fourth generation and lesser combat aircraft. As S.400 systems proliferate, and the technology to make them independently along with it, entire fleets of Air Forces will have to either be modernized or scrapped. Few nations will be able to afford the next generation of aircraft is necessary to operate in the type of hostile airspace. It will increasingly alter the danger of the skies above surface of the earth.
Power projection, Maritime patrols, Surveillance, Air Defense Interdiction Zones, Close Air Support. All these missions will undergo radical transformations wherever the footprint of shows up. I have to spare general readers the specifics because I don’t want to have to put classification stamps at the top and bottom of this article; but, for those of you with the clearances, I’m pretty sure your mind is now racing about what the engagement analytics means; not just for our Air Force, but for every air force that we’ve relied upon to multiply our influence.
Like Star Wars, the S.400 takes the world’s global stability planners through what’s called a non-linear junction in the rules of engagement. Everything changes from the probability of loss mathematics to the diplomatic leverage potential of US and allied force structure inventories.
This is not a small deal. This is an asymmetric threat; as asymmetric as SDI was. This is not a problem directed against the United States. This is a systemic threat to the structure of world order that the United States depends on. It has the consequence effect of undermining and eliminating the how we think power balances between nations and factions within nations. This is what academics call a Beta Risk event, a global stability Black Swan.
And it’s going to work because here’s the thing about asymmetric threats, once the ball gets moving, entropy rules. It’s you against inevitability. It’s almost impossible to stop.
Motives, Methods, Opportunities
Some will see this as profiteering by the Russians selling second generation systems to generate cash and influence among second tier countries as Vladimir Putin’s nationalist pride fights to keep his country relevant in international affairs.
But there’s more to it than that. One nation alone, regardless of intent, can case that much damage. Even Russia. But changes in the topology international power can.
It’s called hill and valley power. That’s the name for the regional struggles for power among so-called second tier of nations. Traditionally the proxy vassals of greater superpowers, our world is now seeing the emergence of nation-state agency, the independent action of individual parties, as the era of hegemony fades and a 21st century of fragmented or fractal alliances begins.
It’s a formula for a very unstable world. As old regime militaries become obsolete, we will see arms races. Desperate efforts to preserve the status quo of force-based order. But it won’t work. More likely, alliances and advantages will change. So many old grudges will be put to new tests between countries. Minuet wars to settle disputes will erupt.
The United States is at a crossroads in how we deal with a complex network of nations as we prepare to bolster our alliances and economic partnerships to prepare for an anticipated era of competition for global economic domination. It is a complex puzzle to be sure as we ponder our national interests with a world experiencing cataclysmic realignment.
The Tier Two Club
A power balance earthquake is rocking Eurasia. Countries like Turkey, Iran and Russia, nations with gross domestic product’s in the middle range of the spectrum, are banding together. It’s an economic-interests banding of nations that don’t’ fit the European Union cooperative model. But it’s not a Warsaw Pact collection of vassals either. These are peer states brought together by not fitting in to the New World Order; they are not one of those thousand points of light.
Still, like the European Union, what they are effectively doing is banding together to shelter in place for the coming battle of the titans between the world’s two largest economies, the United States and China.
To put it mildly, US relations are strained with these Eurasian Tier Two’s.
Our relationships with the Russians have been beset with a series of disastrous resets going back to the end of the Cold War. We never instituted a 1990’s Marshall Plan to help them even after Boris Yeltsin wept openly in our grocery stores about the price his people had paid to uphold their end of the Cold War global stability bargain. We could have established a powerful northern alliance with the Russians; but we didn’t. We let their world go into free fall. Today’s Russia is a basket case of oligarchy and bankrupt districts where the government looks the other way at crimes committed that bring in precious hard cash any way they can. They are still scrounging. Life is hard today.
Vladimir Putin, a very proud man, is holding a hand of cards in a poker game that requires a lot of bluff and bravado. He’s pretty good at it. But he also knows he’s managing a House of Cards as fragile as the one Czars had to contend with in their time.
We’ve not make things easier. We repeatedly go back to our Red Menace prejudice about them over and over; often, purely for the convenience of using them as a foil in our domestic debates. The two countries’ relations remain dysfunction as ever. That’s a lot of incentive for Mother Russia to find another way.
We have a hostile relationship with Iran that exists in what conflict strategists called a grey zone conflict, a stage of strained relations just short of outright warfare. In this case because they’re quite honesty bat shit crazy. Between a grudge their religious leadership hasn’t been able to let go of since 732 A.D. and their fatal attraction to repeat the overextension of influence mistakes of their Persian Empire history, the Iranians have a knack for making themselves unwelcome in genteel circles. Heck, they even have a knack for putting their Tier Two Club allies into some peculiar pickles on a regular basis. Khamenei, Rouhani and Salami act more like Larry, Moe and Curly on the international scene. It’s kind of sad because Persian culture and people are quite interesting.
And then there’s Turkey, the other former empire. Our relationship with the Ottomans is, well, chaotic. The good news, if there is such a thing here, is that’s par for the course. Everyone else’s relationship with them is chaotic too. They are barely still in NATO. And warily members of the Tier Two Club.
The Turks do weird things. They openly call the most stalwart US allies in the region against ISIS, the Kurds, terrorists and would subdue them like the Ottomans did the Armenians. It’s a brutally pragmatic culture that looks out for itself first and only. This is the exact kind of persona that makes the “woke” parts of America freak from deep inside their safe spaces. Of course, given the socio-political fragmentation of the United States, the Turks probably see us as just as a chaotic a counter-party.
In a more practical sense, Turkey has its own share of problems. The Turkish economy is in a period of “retrenchment of previous gains”, to quote the type of thing that Alan Greenspan would have described it. A period of ebullient borrowing by the Turkish government to fund economic expansion has put them on the edge of a Venezuela-like national debt predicament. Political turmoil stemming from it has put the Turkish Central Bank at odds with the Turkish government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Like most leaders in his predicament, Erdogan turns to nationalism to weather the storm.
Under normal circumstances, these three countries have little in common. But these are uncommon times. We are seeing the fragmentation of the world. It will be marked with greater disagreement between parties then in the past. That’s a formula for a dangerous time. The kind of time where someone might make a mistake and accidentally start a World War. This represents a real worry for anyone interested in global stability that can perpetuate the conditions for constructive economic competition.
Note that it also comes at a time when the United Nations has become unable to perform its function of mitigating disharmony among the community of nations. The democratization of the UN whereby the General Assembly has become dominated by Tier Three nations has made it impossible for the Tier One and Two countries to have a working forum within that body. Their differences must be solved elsewhere; so far, in fractured bilateral dealings.
Bottom line is the UN’s path to inclusiveness failed to prevent the fractal alignments are beginning to emerge on this planet. The why, the how, the who doesn’t matter anymore. The fact of the matter is that it’s already happened. The world has gone through a one-way door and there is no way to step back to the other side of the looking glass.
Turkey is, in my opinion, potentially the most destabilizing pivot point to military global stability on the planet at this moment in time. The asymmetric cascading failure will either begin in Turkey or end in Turkey. It’s important that US policy makers not treat this lightly.
I do not like or dislike the Turks. I think they are as much caught in the eye of this storm as anyone else. But it’s not lost on me that Turkey is the grand bazaar of this planet. The oldest market where goods and secrets change hands.
Two critical pieces of technology make Turkey important to every power planner on this planet. They are the S.400 surface-to-air missile system and F-35 fighter. Possession of access to these two technologies lowers the threshold of technology transfer knowledge whereby the cratering of the power of global air forces will extend to threatening the viability of fifth generation stealth technology combat aircraft. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of how fast.
That bombshell will be in the hands of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. I cannot see any scenario where he will not attempt to exploit it.
The China Card
None of this is happening in a battle of the Titans vacuum. The other over $16 trillion GDP economy on this planet, China, is making great effort to be friends with everyone. They send delegations to cooperate with anybody who will let them in the door. There’s even a Chinese military unit drilling with NATO to cooperate in case of a catastrophic humanitarian disaster that engulfs the planet requiring everyone to help.
This positioning strategy makes sense for China. Every stability analyst with his or her weight in salt needs to respect that Xi Jinping is not a fool in this regard. No pun intended, China can read tea leaves very well. They can see the coming changes in the power structure of the planet appearing on the horizon. They want to be the other superpower that appears on the scene for the remainder of the 21st century.
Personally, I am not entirely sure that China sees the global implications of the S.400 any better than the United States does. Their actions so far do not seem to see that they are as vulnerable to the asymmetric dismantling of the Post-Cold War global economy assumption as much as the United States is. My instinct says that the United States and China are about to discover that they have more in common for their dreams of the next world order than we have differences.
It reminds me of the first admonition that was given to me when I started working on the problems of arms control during the Cold War. I was told to remember that the Russians were our partners in ensuring the success of global stability. I was told a tumultuous and dysfunctional relationship to be sure; but, ours was nevertheless a deep bond of allies to organize the world and prevent fragmentation and chaos in the aftermath of World War 2.
Some things change, some things stay the same.
What we can’t do.
Read my lips. No one on this planet can afford to allow a systemic cascading failure of military power balances on this planet to happen. we do not have the international cohesion among the community of nations to prevent the accidental initiation of a World War. We need to understand our limitations. That goes for the United States. That goes for the Chinese. That goes for the Russians. That goes for everyone. We let this happen, trade imbalances will be the least of our problems.
What we should be doing:
First, we should be asking the Russians some very tough questions about whether their intentions are indeed the crater to capabilities of every Air Force on this planet, including their own. If that is not the case, the Russians need to begin to take an active role in managing the systemic danger that they are causing.
Second, we should be discussing with the Chinese the fact that we both want a world where we can continue to interact with each other primarily based on healthy economic competition, even if that intramural sport is somewhat rough at times. We need to come to an understanding with the Chinese that it is both our interest to make sure that our economies can do so successfully anywhere on this planet. We should engage the Chinese in a serious discussion about how we, the two largest economies on this planet, are going to contain the spread of this destabilizing threat to the global stability equation.
Third, we need to stop pussyfooting around and get serious about a US national strategy to break up the Tier Two Club before something bad happens. Considering we are playing for time against a global cascading failure, I would not leave anything off the table for consideration at the National Security Council.
Fourth, we also need a national strategy about what we are going to do as a supplier of weapon systems on this planet to mitigate the threat of destabilization facing the other nations on this earth who cannot afford to respond to what is coming. We cannot stop this alone. The who we help, how we help, what we supply to help, and the conditions under which we will help, need to be thought through systematically or we will screw this up big time.
Fifth, we need to manage the awareness and expectations of the American people so that they understand how serious this problem is and how important it is that we deal with it calmly and in unison. We blink, we lose. Just is.
It’s been a long time since we’ve put ourselves in a position to accidentally burn up the planet.
Image: Turkish Defence Ministry via AP, Pool