Plenty of news outlets have commented already on Russia’s use of an Iranian air base to launch bomber strikes on Syria. Tu-22M3 Backfires flew from Hamadan, Iran on Tuesday, 16 August to conduct strikes against targets in Aleppo, Idlib, and Deir Ez-Zor (the latter in eastern Syria), supporting the ground fight against Syrian rebel groups.
It’s always worth taking a moment to remind readers that these are not systematic attacks on ISIS. Russia’s targets are the rebel groups that hold portions of western Syria, in defiance of the Assad regime. The main effort right now is the battle for Aleppo, in which ISIS has no real part. For what it’s worth, some of the groups Russia is attacking are (or have been) supported by the U.S.
At this point, given the disarray of our Syria policy, it’s not worth much.
With that out of the way, we can move on. We noted nearly a year ago the significance of Russia turning the air space of Iran and Iraq into an air corridor for Russian strategic purposes (see here as well). That’s not a fresh insight; one of the likely developments was always that Iran would allow Russia to use Iranian bases as well as her air space.
What matters now is not the operational-level, fuel-saving implications of the new arrangement for Russia, but the transformative strategic-level implications – especially in conjunction with the other recent deployments of Russian forces.
To cut to the chase, Russia now has a form of geostrategic access through southern Asia that she has never had before, but has sought for the last three centuries.
This is what our vice president would call a big effing deal. Until this week in 2016, there has never been a time when Russia could conceivably project military power through Iran, into the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Now Russia can conceivably do that. The door has been opened.
Let’s take just a moment to put that in perspective. All of the jockeying by Iran in Iraq and Syria over the last few years has followed the old routes of previous conquests and confrontations: clashes with the early Islamic expansion, with the Crusaders, with Tamerlane from Central Asia, with the Ottoman Empire. Go back further, and the armies of ancient Persia were dominant in the lands of modern Iraq and Syria for decades at a time.
But Russia being able to wield military power across Iran and project it into the “Great Crossroads” of chokepoints running from the eastern Mediterranean to the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean? That has never happened before.
Indeed, it has for centuries been the policy of Europe, and then the United States, to discourage such access by Russia. The Truman Doctrine – the first major statement of geopolicy by the U.S. after World War II and the formation of the UN – was focused precisely on deterring Stalin’s attempts to push through Iran, Turkey, and Greece, for just such a geostrategic purpose.
Follow-on U.S. policy, like the policies of Britain, and to a lesser extent France (and even Germany) in the preceding centuries, has been consistent with the “red line” of the Truman Doctrine. Russia mustn’t slice through Southwest Asia, and gain the leverage over the Great Crossroads that would allow her to effectively demand tribute for trade and political access by others.
Obama has never shown any sign of upholding that (or any other conventional) policy principle. Now, within the space of just a few years, the old alliance and enforcement arrangements that bolstered the policy and made it credible have crumbled. The retreat of American power under Obama has made it possible for Russia to achieve something she has sought since the reign of Peter the Great, but could never manage.
In a sense, the timing in technological history is right. Even today, Russian armies in Iran would be too alarming to tolerate, as the prospect of them was after World War II. But the world has been conditioned now to regard without alarm great nations’ forward-deployed air assets, wielded not only by Russia (or the former USSR) but by America, the British Commonwealth, and the NATO nations. Fighters, multi-role aircraft, even heavy bombers roam the globe’s airfields without changing facts on the ground. They don’t seem to carry any special implications today.
A major political-military shift
But in reality, they do. The implication we have rarely had to think about since the last decade of the Cold War is the implication from national cooperation and air space access. Not much changed politically in that regard, once “Soviet adventurism” petered out some 30 years ago.
But it’s back with a vengeance, and now, this week, it’s a factor not only in Syria and Crimea, and not only involving tactical weapon systems. Iran’s agreement to let Russian bombers operate from an Iranian base is by far the most important aspect of what was revealed on Tuesday.
As of now, Iran and Russia have referred to the basing agreement as applying to the “fight against terrorism in Syria.” (See here and here also.) It would require the adoption of additional joint objectives for Russia to use Iranian bases for other purposes.
But if you think that can’t happen, you haven’t been paying attention for the last five years. The world is already being transformed by events that you would have said seven years ago could not happen. There’s no such thing today as “can’t happen.”
So the fact that the door is opened now to something like Russian bombers flying from Iran to attack U.S. facilities in Diego Garcia or Djibouti, as well as in the Persian Gulf, has material meaning. It can’t be ignored.
If Russian theater bombers like Backfires could fly from Iran, moreover, Russian strategic bombers like Tu-160 Blackjacks could have clearance to fly through Iran – again, for the first time in history.
The Near East
This major step for Russia comes in conjunction with other deployments that will enable Moscow to set an area-denial perimeter around much of Asia, and probably expand it over time. I wrote about one a few days ago: the S-400 deployment to Crimea.
That air defense deployment comes some months after Russia’s deployment of advanced air defense systems to Syria, including elements of the S-400 (see here and here). Although the missile intercept capabilities of the Russian systems in Syria are significant, the greater importance of these deployments lies in the ongoing shift they represent between U.S. superiority and Russian superiority in the Mesopotamian-Levantine air space.
Until about a year ago, the U.S. Air Force, in partnership with a loose coalition from the region, was the sole entity exercising anything close to centralized, systematic military management of that air space. That is no longer the case. In fact, the U.S. doesn’t exercise such management now. America is deferring to Russia, on the basis of “sharing the air space,” and Russia is increasingly the entity exercising centralized management.
This shift doesn’t mean Russia has emerged dominant already. What it does mean is that in a theater where, only a short time ago, the U.S. and NATO could have established dominance quickly, we would now have to bicker with a Russian coalition for it – and face an uncertain outcome.
Russia is building an air-defended redoubt running through the Great Crossroads. Right now, it starts on the northwestern border of Russia, runs through Eastern Europe and the Black Sea, picks up in Syria, and continues with the new, unprecedented option for “active defense” through Iran into the Gulf nations and waterways to the south – where the U.S. has relied on guaranteed access for more than 70 years. Russia’s emerging ability to reach out and touch our logistics base in Diego Garcia – from home territory, on an interior line of communication, with conventional weapons, and without the time-consuming problem of deploying ships or missile-equipped submarines – is a game-changer.
The Far East
Hardening the Far East is also underway. In the last few years, the Russians have sent bombers to simulate cruise missile attacks on our bases in Guam. In December 2014, we didn’t intercept the bombers – something that seems incredible, until you analyze the simulated attacks and realize that Russia is exploiting a giant, gaping hole in our Far Eastern defenses.
I did that analysis in 2013, after a simulated attack in February of that year, and showed that the Russians have a route by which they can get their bombers into cruise missile range, pop off cruise missiles, and depart, and our fighter aircraft won’t be in position to react – not, at least, before long-range cruise missiles can be launched at Guam.
Take the impact of eliminating Diego Garcia, multiply it by a factor of at least three, and that’s the impact to our military posture in the Far East if Guam is taken out. The point is not that Russia can inevitably and easily take out either island. Keeping a Patriot battery in Guam will go a long way, even if it won’t be foolproof.
The point, however, is that Russia can force us to put more assets into defending the islands than we’ve had to think about, for our forward strategic hubs, for a long time.
The harder you have to work at force defense, the stronger the drag on your ability to project power. Given the current state of our forces, we are seriously at risk of not being able to project power at all.
Russia has already arranged to hold Guam at risk, using conventional methods. But Moscow isn’t leaving the area-denial preparations at that. The most recent announcement is that Russia will be putting the S-400 air defense missile system into the Kuril Islands off the northern coast of Japan.
If Russia were to put the S-400 on the closest of the island groups Moscow disputes with Tokyo – Kunashiri – the S-400 would be able to intercept not only Japanese fighters from the air base at Chitose, on Hokkaido, but U.S. F-16s operating from Misawa Air Base on the northern tip of Honshu. These air assets are the first line of defense against Russian bombers flying attack profiles in the Far East.
Again, the point here is not that the S-400 is unbeatable. But once it’s there, it will dog U.S. and Japanese air operations and make additional precautions necessary. It’s a layer of area-denial capability that hasn’t been there before; at the very least, it could make us strike first in order to remove a thorny problem. As with the emerging capability Russia clearly wants, to hold America’s forward strategic hubs at risk, it will shift the correlation of forces in Russia’s favor, and against ours.
If you’re like me, of course, your mind says, Hey, we have no desire to wage military operations against Russia anyway.
The return of history
But that doesn’t mean these new Russian measures don’t matter to our security or interests. No one changes his military posture because he’s satisfied with the status quo. Objectively, there is no threat to Russia from Japan, from the United States in the Far East, or from the U.S. in the Indian Ocean or Southwest Asia. Yet Russia is taking advantage of our retreat from power to put capabilities in place that will allow her to harden a perimeter around her near abroad.
She’s not doing that because there’s a chance anyone is going to attack her. Russia is doing it because she wants a hardened redoubt from which to manipulate the nations along the ever-expanding perimeter, and gain leverage over chokepoints and resources. If she has anything to say about it, Russia will be the dominant power in the Eastern hemisphere, and dictate the terms on which the “Atlantic West” interacts with everything in the Great Crossroads, and east of it.
A lot of things, starting with China, are likely to interfere with that plan. But here’s what will not interfere with it: any lingering inertia or remnant of stability from the Pax Americana era. Those factors no longer exist. There’s nothing holding a stable center for our geopolitical conditions today.
It’s really hard to get that through people’s heads, but it’s the most important generic point of all. Everything matters now, from S-400s to where bombers fly from, because there is no enforcement mechanism to sanction the breaching of the peace. Not everything that happens will produce disruption. But anything could.