It’s amazing that we don’t seem to have thinkers able to parse this development. Russia has announced a Cuban missile-crisis-style provocation; it’s being downplayed by the administration, in vague terms, as a continuation of what we’ve seen before; and the administration isn’t being called on it.
Technically, the Pentagon spokesman who addressed this news report didn’t say that Russian bombers patrolled the Gulf of Mexico during the Cold War. He didn’t lie. But he also didn’t clarify that bringing in bombers is the significant change.
And in reporting that Russia plans to put bomber aircraft in the Caribbean and fly them over the Gulf of Mexico, the online editors at CNN did a masterful job of making it appear that such flights would be a resumption (or continuation) of past patterns.
The CNN report puts the Russian announcement, made by Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, right up top in paragraph two. Its next boldface subheading, as the reader skims the page, then says, somewhat misleadingly, “Russian planes flew near U.S. before.” In context, this subheading actually refers to Russian bomber patrols near the northern edges of North America – Alaska, Canada, the U.S. West Coast – rather than to Russian flights over the Gulf of Mexico.
The impression was clearly left from the original reporting that what the Russians are doing now is no different from what they’ve done in the past. News outlets picked up on the implication in their very brief spots on this development Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
But the implication is false. It will actually be unprecedented and alarming for Russia to put bombers – described in the reporting as “long-range strategic bombers” – in Cuba (or, to a slightly lesser extent, Venezuela), and then operate them over the Gulf of Mexico. Doing that is the same as if the U.S. deployed B-52s or B-2s to Europe and operated them in the air space over the Barents or Baltic Sea, or Poland, or Turkey. Which we don’t, as a matter of fact.
Here is what the Pentagon spokesman said, according to Fox:
Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to call this a Russian provocation.
“The Russians have patrolled in the Gulf [of Mexico] in the past and we’ve seen the Russian Navy operate in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said Wednesday. “These are international waters. It’s important that the Russians conduct their operations safely and in accordance with international standards.”
The Russians (in the guise of Soviets) have – very occasionally – flown unarmed reconnaissance aircraft over the eastern edge of the Gulf of Mexico. It was never routine, even during the Cold War. (The era we’re talking about is the 1960s through the 1980s.)
Nor were patrols by the former-Soviet navy ever routine in the Gulf of Mexico. They weren’t even routine in the waters between Cuba and the United States, except for intelligence collection ships. Soviet ships in the Western hemisphere sat in port for weeks at a time (as they did everywhere else they were forward deployed), venturing forth only to conduct very limited drills in local waters off Cuba.
Now and then – at most once a year, but frankly not even that often – the Soviet navy mounted a force-wide exercise big enough that it involved ships, submarines, and aircraft operating out of Cuba. They didn’t tool around the Gulf of Mexico even then. The Soviet naval ships that did enter the Gulf were intelligence collectors (AGIs). (For a good compendium of Soviet naval activity in this period, see Norman Friedman’s The Fifty-Year War: Conflict and Strategy in the Cold War, and, for some more specialized topics, David F. Winkler’s Cold War at Sea.)
More recent years have seen a similar pattern, if a far less robust one. AGIs sometimes operate near the southeast U.S. coast, although it’s not routine for them to be in the Gulf of Mexico. Russian warships, which are very rarely present, remain outside the Gulf.
The new threat
Keeping strategic bombers forward deployed to Cuba, and operating them in the Gulf of Mexico, will ratchet Russian provocation up to an unprecedented level, not reached even in the Cold War.
The earnest attempt to put such bomber deployments in the context of Russian bomber patrols conducted in the northern latitudes is misguided, if understandable. There is a big difference between a typical strategic bomber flight profile – in the Arctic; off of California, Japan, or Western Europe – and a strategic bomber profile that involves launching from Cuba and patrolling the Gulf of Mexico.
The difference is simple: the bomber that launches from Cuba has much of the United States within the Tomahawk-like range of its AS-15 “Kent” (or Kh-55) cruise missiles as soon as it gains altitude. The U.S. will have very little warning of a potential nuclear threat, one that, almost instantaneously, reaches further inland than a bomber coming in over the Pacific or Atlantic can reach before it is intercepted by U.S. or Canadian fighters.
Strategic bombers flying the typical northern-latitude patrol routes come at a minimum from hundreds of miles away, and have only small parts of the extreme north – Alaska or remote northern Canada – in their missile-threat radius before they are intercepted. They have to fly through international air space, moreover, to reach their patrol areas. But a Russian bomber taking off from Cuba could orbit over Cuba, in Cuban air space, and still hit targets as far inland as Washington, D.C., St. Louis, and Oklahoma City.
The Russians have not, in fact, ever proposed to organize their military operations to pose this threat before. It will require more than a log entry at NORAD to prepare for dealing with it.
The southeastern United States is not a well-fortified area for national defense purposes, and our resources are limited today: we don’t have extra fighter squadrons, Aegis warships, or Patriot batteries just sitting around gathering dust. Dedicating assets to this air- and missile-defense problem would be what our vice president calls a “big [eff]-ing deal,” a bridge farther than any of our national planning has even glanced for at least a quarter century.
And that’s aside from national-policy and rules of engagement questions like whose air space we will be ready to violate at will, in order to knock this threat back if it becomes tactically imminent. And what about Mexico, and the Central American and Caribbean nations that would also find themselves suddenly in the threat rings of Russian missiles? Only some of them are effectively on Russia’s side. Do we just roll over on behalf of the others, and let the threat become their problem too? What is the Organization of American States for, anyway?
Forget pulling people out of retirement: we might have to dig them out of their graves, to find planners who have given serious, systematic thought to this kind of issue as a homeland and hemispheric defense problem.
But what’s perhaps more alarming than Russia issuing this threat – proposing to make America scramble to defend herself right where her drawers are down – is the sense that no one in Washington recognizes it for what it is. The Russians are sending a huge signal, and it’s like no one can read it.
If we could read it – if we woke from our post-1991 slumber and realized what this development would really mean – we would understand that Russia, for some reason, is threatening to hold us at risk in a new way, and in a very sensitive area.
Why is she doing that? One reason could be that Russia wants us to back off and give her a freer hand in Eastern Europe, and this arrangement is to be her insurance. The deployment profile could in fact be advance insurance, for plans Russia hasn’t started to execute yet.
A separate but related reason could be that Russia wants a bargaining chip: a way to hold us over a barrel and extort us on a number of issues, such as NATO’s plans to beef up Poland and the Baltic Republics, or our new missile defense base in Romania, or our posture in Syria and Iraq. When someone over here finally realizes what a bad situation this is, we might be able to make it go away, but we’ll have to talk Russia down by making concessions on our policies and plans.
Khrushchev ended up using the Soviet missiles in Cuba as a bargaining chip to get U.S. missiles pulled out of Turkey. I’ve never been definitively satisfied that he deployed the missiles in the first place solely to have a bargaining chip, but they filled that role in the end. Russian strategists would see the bomber threat as having the same weight of sensitivity and unacceptability to America: a provocation we couldn’t live with, and would have to respond to.
The impervious administration
But I do wonder if the Russian chess masters have met their kryptonite in the Obama administration. Did they imagine they would make a chess move of this import and get nothing but blank stares and narcissistic dismissal in return? What do they do, if the move doesn’t work as a warning or a goad? (The fact that they announced it, clearly and openly, instead of just doing it, suggests pretty strongly that they mean it as one.) Are they ready to follow through on their threat, with all that will mean about a permanent change in the atmosphere of strategic relations among the major powers? Once they do this, walking back from it without gaining anything would itself be a negative signal about Russian policy and power.
Still, ironic as all that is, it’s actually more destabilizing if we don’t respond sensibly to the Russians’ gambit. The mind boggles at how open our barn door is if we don’t, and what the incalculable possibilities are for a predator.
Maybe someone in the administration will figure it out. But it’s stunning that no one has addressed the American people as if the import of the move is understood. It’s equally discouraging that the major media haven’t known what questions to ask.
The sense of a complacent, non-leaky silence from the Pentagon suggests that even our defense planners don’t realize yet what they’ve been handed. We’ve been in peacetime mode for too long now: this isn’t normal; it isn’t non-threatening, or business as usual; but the Pentagon is lecturing the Russians on “operating safely” when they bring their bombers over here, instead of focusing on air and missile defense for the United States.
This is real. It’s not a move by the Russians for show, and it’s not happening to somebody else. Now we just need to get someone in Washington to see that.