When we have a situation like that in Crimea, or as we have had on the Korean peninsula in recent years, I hear a lot of highly uneducated questions. I hesitate to call them ‘dumb’ ones, because after much shaking my head, I came to realize the many Americans’ understanding of geopolitics is as flawed as their understanding of history and geography (and the former is probably a function of the latter two). What is also flawed, and grievously: an understanding of the military science that underlies the military balance that underlies each geopolitical situation.
In short, a bunch of people blop about asking “Can we win a war with Russia?” without realizing how incomplete, oversimplified, and thus nonsensical the question is.
Hear me, please. Here is a question as pointless and incomplete: can the Washington Huskies beat the Washington State Cougars in football next November?
Ah, one might say, but we have some measurables there. It’s in Pullman. We know who’s returning for each team. UW has the historical edge. And I would rejoin: yes, one may speculate very generally, bearing in mind that we do not know how UW’s new coach will do, which key players for either side will be injured or emerge from obscurity, how the other 11-12 games will have gone and what impact they will have had, or even what the weather will be like. And because of all those variables, which we can not quantify, any ‘analysis’ by us is flawed. In the week before the game, when we quantify those variables, it will be less flawed.
And even then, things can go crazy. Mike Leach could get arrested for piracy. Chris Petersen could decide that if having to answer questions responsively is the price of major conference coaching, he’d rather coach at Nevada. College football could unionize. The National Conspiracy Against Athletes could, and probably will, do something stupid and petty that only benefits the money machine. It could snow four feet. A Palouse version of Cliven Bundy could have a militia confrontation.
“Can we win a war with Russia?” is on a par with predicting that football game seven months hence.
Okay, so let us supply some facts in overall reference to geopolitics and military science that might get us closer to an educated assessment.
Most Americans’ grasp of military science seems to cling to World War II thinking. You can tell that any time someone says ‘he had to fight in the front lines.’ Such thinking is outdated. Technology has blurred those front lines tremendously. Drones are flown from US domestic airbases. Cruise missiles deliver artillery from submarines. Heliborne operations and guerrilla warfare mean that much or all of a theater of combat may be a threat zone. ‘Front lines’ do not mean the simplified thing grandpa experienced.
It is impossible for the United States to raise a WWII-size military with remotely modern equipment.
- For one thing, it’s too expensive, and if you think our defense contractors will sacrifice profit as a noble gesture to defend their beloved country and ease the burden on taxpayers, you need to go to rehab. A WWII Sherman cost about $50K in 1940s dollars, and enabled five guys to wage war. One might guess that to amount to about $700K now…if we proposed to build Shermans. We wouldn’t. We’d be building M1 Abrams, costing about $4.3M a pop. And that’s just one bit of the equipment needed to put that costly weapon into the field and support its mission. Our WWII ground forces went into action on foot or in trucks or halftracks. Infantry of today that has the speed to keep up with the modern battlefield pace rides in armored personnel carriers that run about $3.1M as well, carrying one rifle squad.
- Some rough math gives me about 600 squads in an infantry division, each needing a $3.1M ride unless it’s meant to walk. It takes roughly 300 of those M1s to equip a armored division. And bear in mind, that does not consider the time it takes to build such complicated equipment, nor potential wartime shortages of key materials. That does not consider rifles, supporting artillery, helicopters, signal equipment, ammunition, everything it takes to equip a modern division of roughly 17,000 men and women.
- Today I think we have about six active divisions, maybe eight in reserve. In WWII we had something like seventy. Of course, today’s division has far, far more firepower, but it can still only defend so much ground. But I trust I’m getting through to you about the tremendously higher cost.
- And that doesn’t consider ongoing ammunition costs, much less the cost of combat aircraft, which can exceed $200M for a single multirole fighter. Nor is it all just the cost of a plane; there is the whole logistical tail required to keep that plane fighting.
- We also have a navy, that lives in the weapon (that hasn’t changed). But its weapons are far more destructive; that has. A single surface-to-surface missile, or torpedo, has potential to sink a $3.3B destroyer. The weapon takes a long time to build. Its crew are highly skilled and take a very long time to train.
Perhaps you now begin to grasp the magnitude of costs involved in a fully national war effort for our lives/freedom/corporate profits/whatever you consider at stake.
For another, we’d need a draft. We’re too fat to draft. In the Vietnam era, guys went to Canada. Today all they’d have to do is eat more McDonalds. The Golden Arches: draft evasion for the new millennium. The military would either have to skip them, or set up fat camps, or develop special fat units that can handle domestic responsibilities without having to meet weight standards. I don’t see the latter two happening.
For yet another, a private soldier’s training today takes much longer. His or her weapons are much more sophisticated (and expensive). His or her death or disablement will cost the military a great deal in terms of lost training value, setting aside considerations of simple tragedy. But modern war tends to happen very quickly. No enemy would fool around for a year or two while we get our full battle rattle on.
I trust you are satisfied that our modern situation is radically different from past wars on which many of us still base assumptions. The hypothetical WWIII, NATO vs. Warsaw Pact with the WTO as aggressor, was expected to last from two weeks to two months–barely enough time to equip and deploy existing reserves to the theater. There will not be another WWII, and it’s foolish to think in those terms.
Now let’s talk about the wars we might fight. We might fight a full-scale nuclear war, for example. Once. It would have the virtue, I suppose, of obviating all need for future defense spending. We might fight a limited nuclear war, if anyone imagines that remotely likely (I don’t). We might fight a brushfire war; say, assisting Ukraine or Finland against a Russian invasion, or helping to defend the Republic of Korea. We might fight a brief conventional war followed by an ongoing and agonizing guerrilla struggle; we have painful recent experience of this, teaching us that in the main, we aren’t equipped for it.
So let’s imagine a brushfire war. Back in the 1930s, a fellow named Seversky published a book on air power. Not everyone fully got what he was saying, but here’s the gist: if you can achieve and hold air superiority in a theater, you win the land war. In conventional warfare, he was right then and he’s even righter now. So when you look at this brushfire war, you must, to be realistic, look at what air power can be deployed to it. That is largely a function of airbases. In Ukraine, the theater is within easy range of the majority of Russian air power, which has always been quite capable. While we might deploy enough air power to match it, it is harder for us to deploy enough to overwhelm it–and to do so, we would have to strike targets in Russian territory. What happens then?
In the Korean War, we could hold air superiority if not air supremacy, mostly because the Chinese air arm couldn’t beat ours–but it could base in China, which we were not eager to strike. Imagine a Second Korean War. If you think about it, all hinges on China, because this isn’t your grandpa’s China. If China intervenes, we lose. If China stays out, we probably win. Last time, China came in when we got too close to its border. We’d have to expect a similar situation this time, and either have to restrain ourselves or prepare to place all our gains at risk–because this time, China would not leave that border irritant as a future threat.
Notice the key factor? Homefield advantage. The farther from US territory we deploy, the more we must rely upon nearby allies and their willingness to participate, if in no other way than permitting overflight. It gets very complicated. To defend Finland, for example, we could likely not overfly Sweden–but the Russians might, and one could expect the Swedes to resist them. Bases would be in Norway or Germany, most likely. How would we land there? Could we get sea transport across the Baltic in wartime? How would Norway play a role, it having a border with both Finland and Russia? None of these questions exist if we are defending, say, Florida. Or invading Cuba, though I’m pretty sure even our leaders are not that stupid.
Then there’s the conventional-followed-by-eternal-guerrilla-warfare version, like Iraq II and Afghanistan. Defense contractors love these, because they chew up a steady flow of spendy equipment and ammunition that must be replaced; for them, it’s like milking a cow. For militaries and taxpayers, it is like being sucked on by dozens of leeches. Fatigue sets in. Everyone gets some combat experience, but the cost of turning a soldier into a survivor changes him or her forever. For the next fifty years, society must reap that result. If we intervened in Syria, it is probable we would face this sort of war: we could crush the Syrian conventional military, most likely, but eventually both sides would agree on wanting us out, and we’d end up fighting the people we just helped. It happened in Afghanistan, when we failed to look at the Soviet experience there.
Okay. So what is really wrong with “Can we win a war with Russia?” Let’s count the ways:
- It doesn’t specify the intensity of the war. Nuclear? Conventional? Chemical? Might it require full national mobilization, as if that were even plausible today?
- It doesn’t specify the location of the war, nor how one imagines it might be confined there. A war against Liechtenstein can probably be confined to Liechtenstein. Russia spans something like half the time zones on earth. Sarah Palin can see it from Wasilla.
- It doesn’t specify the aims of the war, nor how one proposes to hold onto those once achieved, when we live happen to live here and they live there.
- It probably doesn’t even know the basic geography. Hint: if you can’t name two of Ukraine’s non-Russian neighbors without effort, or refuse to consult a map, your opinion is based on nothing because you don’t even know where the flashpoint is.
Ah, some might say, but all our soldiers are heroes, and ours is the greatest, strongest, toughest, most fantastic military on Earth! The only reason we don’t conquer the world is because we are also the noblest! We can beat anyone!
Okay. You’re not going to like this, but I guess you need to hear it.
- Some of our soldiers rape each other and torture enemy captives. That’s not heroic. It’s just a function of the evil in mankind that comes out when mankind has power. We are human, and war brings out both nobility and evil.
- Even imagining ours is a mighty military, there isn’t that much of it. If you think it could conquer China as it is, then you need to go to rehab. We could destroy China, at the cost of our own destruction, but we can’t conquer it.
- No, the only reason we don’t conquer the world is because not only can we not, it would be stupid of us. If we thought it were advantageous, and we could, we would. It isn’t and we can’t. It’s beyond our interests and capacity.
- If we can beat anyone, why are we leaving Iraq and Afghanistan with stalemates and propped-up governments that will not long survive the removal of the props? Why didn’t they just fall on their knees and praise Allah that they would now have democracy, which guarantees earthly paradise?
The reality is that our military is not all-powerful, nor always noble. It’s composed of real men and women, led by the same. It can be sent into unrealistic situations by dumb politicians. Its leaders, who do know which countries border Ukraine, can make mistakes. Our military is formidable, but before we commit it to war and put it at risk, we need to understand a given situation and have attainable goals. “Well, we had to do something” is not understanding, nor is it a goal.
So. With that in mind, now that I’ve told you that most of you have no idea what you’re talking about when you contemplate intervention in Ukraine, or what it would mean to just invade North Korea and make Kim get a decent haircut, how do you learn what you’re talking about? How do you educate your opinion?
- Get a map, and look at some population figures. How big is the population of each country? Population isn’t a perfect guide to strength, but quantity does have a quality all its own.
- Figure out what most of the people involved probably want. Most Iraqis didn’t want an American puppet government. They would rather have an Iraqi government, even a bad one.
- Of countries involved, assess their stomach for conflict and how it might affect their interests. How badly do most Ukrainians even want to be independent of Russia? Would Belarus care? Would German troops, or Polish, dare join in, given that it wouldn’t be either’s first time in Russian memory, and the ghosts that would stir? Would either country even consider it? What of Turkey, a NATO ally with two Russian frontiers, one land (in effect…unless you believe Georgia could really stand in the way) and one sea? (Sea is a frontier in modern warfare. Oh, how it is. And the air is the eternal frontier of every theater of war.)
- Ask what the participants would have to gain. Sometimes it’s popular approval, such as the historic motivation for Russia to feel protective of Serbia. Sometimes it’s resources. Sometimes it’s ‘fight them here now or fight them later on our own ground.’ Sometimes it’s an American bribe, or the fear of American commercial wrath.
- Get an idea of relative military strengths available to all potential participants. The whole Russian military, which must watch the single longest land border of any nation on earth, can’t go. How much of it can? How quickly could reserves be mobilized?
- How sane are the leaders? If you’re dealing with Kim, of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, well, is it sane to rattle the nuclear saber every time one wants a little attention? What of leaders who don’t care how many of their own people they lose? Not everyone thinks the way we expect our own leaders to think.
When you examine all those factors, you educate your opinion. About Iran, Ukraine, Finland, Korea, anywhere.
And when you do, you understand that the question is never as simple as “Can we win a war with Russia?”