Russia is our greatest existential threat!
In business, politics, and national security, knowing when to abandon a once-winning strategy can be the difference between long-run success and running off the cliff. The United States has reached this point in its strategic approach to Russia.
As recently as 2010, US-Russian relations were improving. Achieving Ronald Reagan’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons seemed possible. Unfortunately, Russia’s deeds over the past year have dashed these hopes, as highlighted by President Obama’s nominee for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford, in his confirmation testimony: “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia… If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.”
Russia’s creeping expansion borrows tactics from the Chinese. It integrates paramilitary units to produce a casus belli for intervention, conventional force to coerce or threaten its neighbors, and counter-intervention measures to dissuade western involvement.
An alarming development is that Russia contemplates the early use of small-yield, tactical nuclear weapons and withering cyber attacks to dissuade the United States and Europe. It is an effective asymmetric play.
It also directly challenges the underpinnings of US deterrence. Russia’s strategy capitalizes on the limitations of US large-yield nuclear weapons, its own violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the US military’s dependence on vulnerable commercial cyber networks for its operations. All undercut US and NATO credibility in the face of Russian provocation.
Russian use of small-yield nuclear weapons as a warfighting tool early in a conflict could limit US or NATO options to retaliate with its arsenal of large-yield nuclear weapons. US strategic weapons were not built for warfighting but for deterrence. They were meant to be the ultimate reprisal weapon.
A small-yield, Russian nuclear weapon delivered using precision guidance atop intermediate range missiles could devastate military targets, while limiting civilian effects. Would a US President inflict large numbers of civilian deaths with large-yield, strategic weapons in retaliation?
It begs the question whether the deterrence logic of the US large-yield nuclear arsenal remains credible. This has been a key underpinning of successful US deterrence for 70 years. But it depended on the Russians believing the US would use these weapons when pressed.
Persistent cyber attacks against US commercial networks could not only devastate the US economy but also disrupt US conventional military operations that depend on these networks. If the US is banking on conventional force to deter Russian use of small-yield nuclear weapons, this vulnerability is so attractive that it could serve to incentivize a Russian attack.
So what should the United States do?
First, launch a crash program to reduce US commercial cyber vulnerabilities. No government agency is chartered with this mission. US law prevents industry from actively defending itself or sharing data to facilitate defense. A simple first step would allow private sector collaboration with a national defense-led honest broker to facilitate cooperation and defense.
Second, walk away from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. With Russia in clear violation and China building missiles apace as a non-signatory, the treaty no longer serves to strengthen stability on US terms. Worse, it forecloses lower cost military alternatives to deal with Russian and Chinese counter-intervention strategies, such as the US fielding its own force of precision intermediate-range missile systems.
Third, increase the readiness of the nuclear industrial base and reconsider the investment being made in large-yield weapons. Basic design skills in the US nuclear labs have eroded dangerously. Engineers have become maintainers, not designers. The US is recapitalizing its large-yield weapons, instead of building more flexible designs that give a President credibility to deter aggression and control escalation.
How the United States responds to Russia over the next 24 months will set the table for downstream options around the world. It marks an uncomfortable return to a world dominated by state on state competition.
While the idea of exchanging nuclear weapons is indeed horrific, the unthinkable is quite thinkable for other world leaders. The nation and future Presidents deserve credible tools to respond. Abandoning the notion of a secure United States free of nuclear weapons is a great first move. Only then can we begin to think about and truly understand deterrence in a more dangerous world.
Colonel Rob Maness is a retired US Air Force officer. Over his more than 32 years of service he gained experience as a commander in bomber combat operations, as an installation commander in the nuclear mission area, a senior vice-commander in the airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance mission, supervising a major Air Force command team operating the national budget process and strategic planning, and as a joint staff operations officer in nuclear operations and future operations in the Pentagon, including on 9/11/01. Following his military service, he spent two years in a Fortune 500 Utility company as a Director before running for the US Senate in Louisiana during the 2014 election cycle.