HONOLULU, Nov. 25, 2015 — Turkey, a NATO member state, did the unthinkable this week and shot down a Russian combat aircraft. Like the fictional skipper of the USS Alabama in the nuclear thriller “Crimson Tide,” Cold War political scientists and veteran military officers can at last say with a sigh, “Gentlemen, after a nice little vacation, looks like we’re back at it again. I hope you enjoyed the peace, because as of now, we’re back in business.”
What a shock it must be to so many tenured college professors who built their reputations around post-hegemony, end-of-history, democratic group hug kumbaya poppycock sermons declaring that the era of great powers was over and a new world order was upon us all. For those not distracted by the desire to pull Woodrow Wilson’s name from the prestigious Princeton school of Public and International Affairs, new world order academics must be pulling their heads bald over current events. Turning on the television, one daily sees a scathing refutation of the last 23 years of defective international theory and useless military doctrine.
First, the liberal think tanks told us that there would be no need for nuclear weapons in our new world order. Then in 1998, Pakistan stunned the world with six nuclear tests, followed by North Korea in 2006. Now with present-day Iran, the whole world is biting nails and shaking in their boots over the rogue state’s potential to produce so much as one nuclear device.
Next, the think tanks told us that there was no need for “obsolete” air forces or navies, for in the new world order, we would only need reserves of highly mobile “troops” — whatever that is, but we assume these pedagogues really mean “light infantry” — to assist in humanitarian missions, stability operations and counter-drug/counter-terror interdiction. Then in 2007, as the George W. Bush administration saw itself crippled by a two-front war, Russia began buzzing U.S. allies with nuclear bomber patrols and the People’s Republic of China ratcheted up a series of naval and aerial incursions against multiple Asia-Pacific states.
From April to December 2014 alone, Japan in response to VVS and PLAAF aircraft scrambled alert interceptors a whopping 744 times, a record not seen since the chilliest days of the Cold War some 30 years earlier. From July to September 2015, the JASDF reportedly launched interceptors some 117 times. This does not even begin to address the untold thousands of other times other Asian, Western European or even the United States alert forces have had to launch interceptors or carrier fighters against Russian or Chinese planes.
Now correct me if I’m wrong, but short of the new world order’s “highly mobile troops” being given the awesome powers of Marvel’s Iron Man suit, it looks like we still very much need air forces and naval assets to defend against these trends.
Strategic Contests of Ships, Planes, and Nations
“World War III has just begun!” gasped thousands across horrified social networks as initial reports first emerged that Turkey had shot down a single Russian Su-24 Fencer fighter-bomber. With the Thanksgiving holiday just around the corner, a few Americans who idolized Russia’s Vladimir Putin even posted image macros across Facebook and Twitter, boasting that we better have ham ready, because Putin will see that “there’s no Turkey left.”
Whatever. Seasoned realists, defense historians, and political scientists who hadn’t yet drunk the new world order Kool-Aid knew better, recalling that in July 1970 the Israeli Air Force stalked, ambushed and high-handedly shot down five Soviet MiG-21 Fishbed fighters, walking away with one of the greatest air combat capers of the Cold War — and didn’t trigger a nuclear exchange.
Predictably, after a series of “emergency conferences” and very angry words from Mr. Putin, the Russians ultimately blinked and didn’t launch ICBMs or even try a retaliatory mission against the airbase that hosted the offending F-16 that shot down their Su-24. Of course they didn’t. In October of this year, CDN told you before anyone else did that the best thing Turkey could do was to shoot down the next Russian plane that violated her airspace to establish a solid precedent beyond the usual cacophony of empty U.S./NATO threats.
Let’s dispense with all the feigned shock and self-righteousness here. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets routinely shot down Western aircraft — even going so far, as in the case of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, to frustrate recovery of the aircraft’s flight recorder — without any actual consequence or outbreak of war. When it comes to the strategic contest of ships, planes and nations, the Russians, who almost always shoot first and ask questions later, have racked up a bloody scoreboard that is decidedly in their favor when it comes to attacking “intruders.” When Turkey shot down an Su-24 this week, this shocking act of brinkmanship took initiative out of Russia’s hands and placed it back in NATO’s hands, at least for now. Here’s what we can learn from this encounter.
1. Brinkmanship works.
Russia, as powerful and immense as her forces are, will ultimately respond differently to Turkey and the U.S./NATO alliance following the loss of its Su-24. Up to this point, the Russians enjoyed being able to routinely skirt or even penetrate NATO airspaces under the assumption that their leaders would be too fearful to take any aggressive action. This was a dangerous precedent to endure, because in international tradition, failure to enforce borders implies consent to be violated. (On the opposite end of the spectrum, this is the same reason the U.S. Navy routinely conducted armed “freedom of navigation” F-14 patrols inside of Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s unreasonable “Line of Death” extension of his territorial waters.)
Now, thanks to Turkey, Russian commanders must automatically assume over the short term that any aircraft straying too close or penetrating NATO airspace must be on guard against interceptors or surface-to-air defenses willing and able to shoot them down. One must never allow fear of international actors to determine one’s policy course; rather, one must seek to influence others with careful application of brinkmanship.
Avinash K. Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff aptly write in “Thinking Strategically: The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics, and Everyday Life,” “The essence of brinkmanship is the deliberate creation of risk. This risk should be sufficiently intolerable to your opponent to induce him to eliminiate the risk by following your wishes. This makes brinkmanship a strategic move … Like any strategic move, it aims to influence the other’s actions by altering his expectations. In fact brinkmanship is a threat, but of a special kind.”
The citizens and leaders of the West have been irrationally motivated by the “it only takes one” fear of nuclear exchange that they have been crippled by states like Russia or even China that know such heuristics as “Washington D.C. will never trade Los Angeles for Taipei.” In reality, short of Russia’s launching a first strike/decapitation strike, Russia would — for now — be hesitant to resort to nuclear retaliation over NATO aggression, first for the sheer fact that their existing conventional forces are largely outdated and few in number, and second and more important, due to the fact that Russia’s nuclear forces are the only thing they have going for them.
Knowing this, U.S. and NATO forces should reply aggressively and unpredictably to Putin’s behavior, intentionally seeking escalations and friction as pretexts to achieve peacetime goals. The Russians are tough, but they’re only tough when they aren’t challenged.
2. Russian air defenses aren’t absolute.
Even as the 19-year old Matthias Rust shamed the Soviet Union in May 1987 when he penetrated the world’s most intimidating air defense network to brazenly land a leisure Cessna 172 in Red Square, the recent Su-24 downing by Turkey raises serious questions about the renascent superpower’s capabilities. To begin, why didn’t the Su-24 have nearby fighter escorts to “bounce” NATO interceptors or, at the very minimum, electronic warfare support to frustrate communication between the F-16s and their ground controllers?
When U.S. attack aircraft were challenged by Iraqi Mirage F-1EQs during Operation: Desert Storm, USAF F-15 Eagles routinely pounced on offending pilots within minutes of each encounter and downed them. That a NATO F-16 should be able to shoot down an Su-24 and then return to base without hot pursuit (or a punitive airbase strike) by Russian MiGs speaks not only to the actual aggressive mindset of Putin’s commanders, but also to the thin capabilities of Russia in the region. If the Turkish narrative is correct that the Su-24 crew had been warned multiple times to turn away from the border, Russia had more than enough time to vector air superiority aircraft to intervene on behalf of their pilots but didn’t.
3. Do what Russia and China hate … buy aircraft carriers, ICBMs, and plenty of fighterplanes.
Western academic white papers and mainstream media are full of talk decrying the utility of nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, intercontinental ballistic missiles or the much-hated air superiority fighter. The truth is, America’s enemies want us to invest more of our trust in infantry than in strategic hardware because that is the one area they can always beat us in. Our adversaries can always raise more troops than we can, but they cannot — for now — beat us in the area of technological sophistication and sheer firepower. We should recapitalize and begin accelerated production of new deterrent systems to ensure domination of aerospace, sea and land in spite of Russian and Chinese advances.
4. Always be unpredictable and reserve the right to strike.
There is another reason that Russia didn’t attack Turkey despite the provocation of losing a dogfight to NATO fighters: Great powers don’t use nuclear weapons on minor powers. As a result, there is a certain degree of freedom that client states like Turkey can enjoy in reserving the right to walk up to the Bear and “count coup” by slapping his face.
Forget about Russian claims that Turkey “stabbed Russia in the back” by downing an Su-24. If anything, the Russians have stabbed NATO in the back, considering the United States generously paid millions of dollars to finance Russian reconstruction and post-Cold War nuclear security only to have Putin revive the nuclear competition of the Cold War against the West with armed bomber flights. By shooting down the Su-24, Turkey did what the gutless, useless ministers and secretaries of NATO could not do on their own, and that is to put Russia on notice.
In the event of repeated incursions by Russian combat aircraft, Turkey should not only shoot down the offending aircraft, it should reserve the right to retaliate against the airbase from which that aircraft originated. No matter how “formidable” Russian surface-to-air missile defenses (which may or may not even be there) and combat air patrols may be, a simple, yet brutally uncomplicated fact of aerial warfare remains that there are simply not enough missiles to stop a fast, concentrated attack. At least one plane will always get through to the target, and in the case of modern F-16s or F-4 Phantoms armed with Popeye standoff missiles, the chances of a successful Turkish retaliatory strike is even greater.
The current NATO alliance is weak and searching for a mission only because her member states have allowed Russia to dictate their destiny. Forget the lies and failed worldviews of the academic liberals. The conflict of a divided East and West witnessed over the 20th century is back. It is time for NATO members to be assertive and to keep the Bear and Dragon in check.
Dr. de Gracia is a political scientist, an ordained minister, a former elected official and the author of the new political thriller “American Kiss,” available now from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and other major bookstores. DISCLOSURE: Danny de Gracia is an elected Republican district chairman, but his opinions are expressly his own and do not reflect the official opinion of any organization.