U.S. not ready for cold or hot war with Russia over Ukraine

Russian bear

Jacob Siegel writes for The Daily Beast, March 20, 2014:

(Note: The pics, note commentaries, and video are not Daily Beast’s, but inserted by this poster, StMA.)

After more than two decades of post Cold War re-alignment, the [U.S.] military is less prepared than it has been in generations for a confrontation with Russia.

No one in Washington is calling for the U.S. to go to war over Crimea and there are plenty of reasons why, at this point, military intervention could be a dangerous and foolhardy course. But if circumstances change and political leaders start looking to the military or the bargaining power that comes from a credible threat of force, they will find their options severely limited.

Over the course of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq soldiers and marines have trained for maneuvering and fighting in small units over the landscape of the Middle East. Counter-insurgency (“COIN”) doctrine, which stresses engagement with local civilian populations and tactics for fighting loosely organized forces employing light weapons, has become the military’s new bible. It’s about as far away as you can get from the principles used in the Cold War.

According to retired General David Deptula, who served as the Air Force’s top intelligence officer, “we’ve been focused on the far left end of the spectrum of operations,” by which he means the protracted, low-intensity conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, he says, “if we want to maintain superpower status we need to be prepared to succeed across the full range of operations, not just the left end of it.”

USAF Lt. Gen. David Deptula (ret.)

USAF Lt. Gen. David Deptula (ret.)

Even the few strategists that weren’t pre-occupied by Iraq and Afghanistan were planning for the much-touted Asia pivot, envisioning a future, one they’d argue is still looming, defined by Chinese hegemony. Russia, meanwhile, was considered by many to be an historical relic; still big enough to wield real power but no longer capable of threatening U.S. vital interests and a second or third order afterthought when evaluating threats the military needed to plan for.


Note: There is no Asia pivot either. See “Pentagon official: U.S. budget will not allow an Asia pivot.


For years there have been only a handful of people consistently talking about Russia and China building highly advanced systems for use against our ‘Cold-War era’ aircraft, missiles and ships,” Deptula says.

Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Chief of Staff of the USAF

Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Chief of Staff of the USAF

He’s talking about himself and some of his closest confidants at the Air Force, who pushed for continued production of high-end weaponry like the F-22 stealth fighter—right when the Iraq insurgency was at its peak. It made Deptula and his gang seem like Mach 2 dinosaurs, pining for a conflict with an imaginary enemy while the real bad guys were blowing up Marines in Fallujah. Understandably, Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary of the time, wanted the military to focus on the wars America was actually fighting at the moment. And so eventually, many of Deptula’s colleagues—including Gen. Michael “Buzz” Moseley, the Air Force’s top officer—were shown the door when they opposed Gates once too often. According to Deptula, “those people were ignored by [former Defense Secretary] Gates, and some were fired because they had the courage to speak truth to power.


Note: Ironically, the now retired former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is singing a very different tune. See “Former U.S. defense secretary: Obama incompetent; suspicious of military.” 


As the White House and Pentagon planners consider what to do if Russia invades Eastern Ukraine or deploys its forces elsewhere in the region, the limited choices available reveal just how profoundly the military has changed since the Cold War.

For half a century, Cold War military strategy focused on containing Russia and winning in clashes between large conventional forces. On the ground, that strategy called for mass formations organized around tanks and heavy weaponry. In the skies it relied on dominance in Top Gun style style air-to-air fighting prowess, radar evading stealth technology, and powerful bombers that could drop massive munitions to destroy enemy armor and fortified installations.

Since the end of the Cold War, that strategy has been completely overhauled. Training and doctrine have focused on small unit tactics while new weapons and vehicles have been designed with squads in mind rather than divisions. Super-sophisticated dogfighters, like the $187 million-a-pop F-22, suddenly seemed too fancy to actually use. Who would fit the bill if one actually went down? Instead, drones costing less than a tenth the price littered the skies over Afghanistan and Iraq.

But those drones are useless against any military with a half-decent system for shooting down enemy aircraft. And Russia has one of the best air defenses on the planet. Suddenly, it’s those iconic Predator drones that seem obsolete.

“Hopefully the situation with Russia and Ukraine will be a bucket of cold water on those who believe all we need to be able to do is counter-insurgency operations,” Deptula told The Daily Beast.

And now, there are signs that the U.S. Air Force’s long-held technological advantage may be eroding.

The new generation of Russian fighter plane, the T-50, isn’t yet fully operational but it “will be produced much sooner that Gates and his crowd predicted,” Deptula says. He adds that “once the T-50s are produced in sufficient numbers there won’t be anything in the NATO fleet that can deal with them except the F-22s and F-35s.

David Axe, the long-time military tech writer notes that the T-50, which can fire long-range missiles while flying both high and fast, may be able to “exploit critical vulnerabilities in U.S. and allied forces and level the air power playing field for the first time in a generation.”

An independent Australian think tank, Air Power Australia, drew a more severe conclusion.  “If the United States does not fundamentally change its planning for the future of tactical air power, the advantage held for decades will be soon lost and American air power will become an artifact of history.”

While Russian aircraft rely on speed and long flight times, the U.S. fleet is largely built for stealth so it can evade detection and anti-air weapons to engage targets at closer ranges. But the stealth capability, is now being challenged by advances in Russia’s radar detection platforms and anti-aircraft weapons.

Today,” Deptula said, “the Russians have an extant significant advantage in their surface to air capabilities.” And that with the exception of the U.S.’s small number of highly advanced 5th generation aircraft, “the Russians can conduct area denial of any airspace within range of their defenses if they want to deny access to aircraft.”

Since 2001, the Pentagon has had good reasons for prioritizing spending for troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan over speculative needs for future wars, but a consequence has been that we now have what Deptula calls “a geriatric Air Force and Navy fleet.

No one, not even Deptula, is suggesting that there’s about to be some all-out showdown between Moscow’s military and Washington. But it’s not at all unlikely, given the new and chilly climate, that American forces and allies could wind up in skirmishes with proxies equipped and trained by Russia. The U.S. used to be able to count on an overwhelming technological advantage. Tomorrow, maybe not.

Foreshadows of this are already being cast. Already, Russia is outfitting the Assad regime in Syria while America runs guns to the rebels there. It’s the Russian side that’s winning.

The change isn’t just about equipment or tactics, though, American forces trained in counter-insurgency who are stationed in Europe could still be deployed to hold the line against Russian advances. But there are drastically fewer forces left in Europe available to be called upon in such an event.

An analysis of Defense cuts published by the conservative American Enterprise Institute in 2013 reported that “the Army alone has closed 100 installations in Europe since 2003 and plans on returning an additional 47 installations to host nations by 2015.” The same report notes, “the Navy has also been consolidating and decreasing its European bases” and “since 1990, the Air Force has reduced aircraft and forces stationed in Europe by 75 percent.” Addressing the future of America’s military footprint in Europe, the paper concludes that the Pentagon is “planning to continue reducing the US presence in Europe by approximately 15 percent over the coming decade.”

The military can’t be equally prepared for every threat and if its focus has been on counter-insurgency, that’s because those are the wars we’ve been fighting for the past twelve years.

Generations of veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have been raised and bled on COIN doctrine but, as combat demands, they have also learned how to be agile. Individual leaders on the battlefield are able to adapt quickly; it’s the military bureaucracy that’s like a tank: a slow, immensely powerful machine that’s only capable of plotting one course at a time. Quick turns are not an option.

Without many viable military options to counter Russian aggression what’s left for U.S. leaders seeking to punish Russia and assure our NATO allies that we’ll protect them? Cunning diplomacy, maybe.

Crimea is Russian now; that’s not changing any time soon. Condemning the invasion and the fixed terms of the referendum have no more bearing on the current situation than the reasons Russia gave for annexing Crimea—some of them legitimate—ultimately had to do with the duplicity and force they used to take it.

The real question, and the subtext in much of the current talk about Crimea, is whether Russia will stop there or proceed to further conquests. 

Despite it’s show of force in Crimea, Moscow has a lot to lose if the conflict broadens and draws in the U.S. and NATO. Russia has gas to sell to Europe, oligarchs counting on feeling comfortable in their London townhouses, a new middle class looking for normalcy that’s already taken to the streets in protest, and the memory of Chechnya, a brutal war that took thousands of lives, fresh in the national memory.

If U.S. officials can present a deal that satisfies American aims while appealing to Russia’s self-interest, they may be able to prevent a larger conflict. But a new age of competition with Russia? That may be even harder to head off.

[End of Daily Beast article]


All of which, of course, raises the question of why Obama is talking so tough, calling the Crimea crisis an “extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security, threatening and instituting sanctions at Russia — against which Russia has retaliated by pulling $billions from western banks and the U.S. treasury.

H/t CODA commenter Anonymous


12 responses to “U.S. not ready for cold or hot war with Russia over Ukraine

  1. Reblogged this on Fellowship of the Minds and commented:
    Not only is Obama a disaster in domestic policy, he is an utter calamity in foreign policy and what is being done to the U.S. military. We can only hope that America can restore itself when this man finally leaves office, although he still has almost 3 more years to inflict even more damage.


  2. I second everything Dr Eowyn has written, as they are surely clear facts. This article re-confirms that all militaries train to fight the last war[s] they experienced; this may be a human trait that cannot be changed, as we will never have perfect foreknowledge, only informed estimates.

    At 71, it appears to me that von Clausewitz was correct, if I paraphrase him to this: “War is the extension of failed diplomacy [Politik] by other means.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_von_Clausewitz]

    We have far too much failed diplomacy driving our militaries; nearly always the politicians who create wars are ones who never were combat soldiers or even served in a peacetime military. So we have backward-looking politicians leading blind but trusting taxpayers who pay the bills, and send their sons and daughters to die for failed diplomacy, which the highly paid Kerry and Clinton were supposed to be masters of, and thus to PREVENT wars, not incite them.


  3. A. James Gregor, Ph.D. & Professor

    The current discussion raises vital questions. It is clear that the strategic environment of 2014 is vastly different than it was at the turn of the century.

    At that time, neither Russia nor China appeared prepared (either in terms of disposition or inventory) for conventional conflict. All that has dramatically changed. While the US worked to create a military force capable of winning an asymmetrical war in the sand countries, Beijing has invested in conventional armed forces — much, if not most, purchased off the shelf from Russia (fifth generation aircraft and the aircraft carrier to transport them as well). The PLAAF now has credible anti-carrier missile capabilities (including launch capable submarine units). All of which makes Washington’s “pivot to Asia” appear either unwise or beyond accomplishment.

    At the same time, Washington has allowed the situation in the Middle East to deteriorate to what appears to be an impossible level of disorder. The consequence has been to draw Moscow back into the region (successfully defending Iran and Syria). None of this should have happened. The relationship between Russia and China is tenuous (with Russia occupying vast regions in the “Russian” Far East that Beijing has long and insistently claimed). Washington has managed to throw Russia and China together and alienated enough of the Arab community that Russia had made an artful return.

    Most of this is the consequence of poor strategy. Most Arabs in the “Arab Spring” states (including Jihadists) have tended to drift toward Moscow (even though Moscow has been an unforgiving enemy) because Washington has so badly mishandled relations with Arabs throughout the region (think of the fiasco in Egypt and the glee with which the fall of anyone in the region the least friendly with the US was celebrated in Washington).

    Then, to make the situation all but impossible, Washington announced the systematic reduction of the nation’s armed forces (as yet no more than a threat–but enough to give heart to Putin and the leadership of the PLA).

    The problems we face are largely of our own making. The solutions will similarly fall to us as a nation. In the interim we must pray that arbitrary acts by persons in authority do not set off a chain of events that could be irreversible — leading to an outcome no one wishes.


    • I certainly agree with your assessment in your first two paragraphs, but I do think your conclusory statement (“All of which makes Washington’s “pivot to Asia” appear either unwise or beyond accomplishment.”) is more apprehensive than is deserved. The Chinese transition toward a military based on following our lead in the Revolution in Military Affairs, or in Information Operations, or whatever might be our most recent catch-phrase-of-the-day that I may not have heard yet, is very real but also is very much a matter of still playing catch-up ball. In particular, there is no convincing reason to conclude China’s airpower, seapower, and attempt at Anti-Access/Area Denial of the area of operations around China is yet or must ever be sufficient to achieve their objectives while denying us the ability to achieve ours. Is it possible they can get there? Sure, but not yet probable as far as I’m concerned. (I’m speaking in the context of some military confrontation in/over the Yellow/EastChina/South China Seas).


    • Dear Dr Gregor:

      I’ve read and re-read your astute, insightful remarks above at least four times before I set pen to paper, so to speak. They very much remind of Dr George Carver’s monograph, “Light from the Thirties on Lines in the Sands”, which he wrote from his position at CSIS for Bush 41 before the First Invasion of Iraq. You may be aware of Dr Carver’s very high rank within the CIA, and his time in the Vietnam Era, both in country and in testimony, before Congress in re of those missing in action and other captives.

      I was given a copy of that monograph by a close friend of Dr Carver’s, a client of mine who had become my good friend; he asked me to evaluate it and let him know what I thought of it. I devoured its densely written, evocative pages with much the same gratification I derived upon reading your analysis. Out of that reading came my Internet ‘swan song,’ the last long analytical and historical essay I would write for posting. If interested, you can read a later version of it –but w/o the original’s excellent graphics– at: http://www.conspiracyarchive.com/Commentary/Ghost_of_Carver.htm

      The fellow who created & maintains this site is Terrell Arnold, whom you may know, as he was formerly a long-time career Mid-East diplomat, who later taught at West Point. At any rate, Terry is an excellent old-timer with an equally excellent memory, for, as Plato reminded us, “… the first requirement of a philosopher is a good memory!”

      Like the Meander River, I eventually return to the riverbed of my writing! Now, as you point out, “The problems we face are largely of our own making.” And while this is true, I wonder if “The solutions will similarly fall to us as a nation.” Certainly they will, but if history is our guide, the track record of US diplomacy since 1945 has been swamped by the immense covert activities of the CIA, the USAID, and far too many other alphabet departments run amok w/unlimited funds.

      Eisenhower –who was no Jimmy Carter– in his Farewell Address famously warned the nation against the unwarranted acquisition of influence by the military-industrial complex. Few know that it was originally written as ‘the military-industrial-Congressional complex’, as he fully understood a certain ‘hideous strength,’ as another writer once put it. At the proverbial last minute an aide recommended cutting ‘Congressional’ out, as it could have serious consequences. So it goes!

      And now this, as you point out above, “All of which makes Washington’s ‘pivot to Asia’ appear either unwise or beyond accomplishment.” Yet here we are: the US apparently willing to risk WW3, but for what? Resource grabs? To destroy another nation’s currency, with Great Mother Russia looking on?

      One wonders just what the Hell is going on amidst all this mad ineptness, for this isn’t simply failed diplomacy, but rather diplomacy scorned, a terribly flawed, even fatal adoption of von Clausewitz: “War is the extension of failed diplomacy [Politik] by other means.”


  4. Americas thinking should be to let Europe fend for itself while it seems the EU didn’t learn a damn thing from the lessons of 1938-39 ! America needs to pay heed to our governments prime reason for being; “Making America safe from foreign enemies”. I dare say we are tired of dying, bleeding, and going broke to protect those who refuse to protect themselves !


    • Ditto and Amen! Here in Kanada we’re led into the same evil neo-con stupidity by our boot-licking Prime Toady Stephen Harper. After destroying our true Conservative Party he went on to re-invent governance by his weird ideology, which is privy only to himself and his small Calgary-based cabal of advisors. And while he claims to be an economist, he had “no idea” that the banksters set-up for financial collapse was in the offing. Really? I was writing about this immense Ponzi scheme and posting it on the Internet since at least September 2003, before I left Vallejo, CA, a wonderful town now laid low by the same perps.


  5. Thank you StMA for this remarkable post. I also appreciated Dr. Gregor’s thorough and insightful analysis. I have learned much reading this post. Frankly though, I don’t believe the king is incompetent. I believe the destruction of our country has been strategized and that he is the puppet to accomplish this goal.


  6. Pingback: Obama admin removes last tanks from Europe |

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