Air power becoming the new gunboat diplomacy

Fighter aircraft probing air defences, expanded surveillance and reconnaissance missions, extended long-range nuclear bomber patrols – they are all part of the new lingua franca of east-west diplomacy.

“East-West relations” is itself once more a term of art in global affairs as Moscow, Washington, and Brussels take up their quarrels and rely increasingly on military gestures to do the talking for them. The ostensible point is to communicate strength and resolve, but there is an unavoidable subtext of impotence in posing threats you know you can’t ever carry out.

Military symbolism is now literally in full flight. In the dominant western narrative, Russian flights are provocative and dangerous; in the east it’s the reverse, with NATO the provocateur. From Europe to the Arctic to North America, over land and sea, air power diplomacy has taken centre stage.

Russian fighters buzz Canadian frigates in the Black Sea and pose dangers to civilian air traffic over the Baltic Sea. Russian strategic bombers patrol the Beaufort Sea, and NORAD jet fighters are scrambled on cue. US reconnaissance aircraft patrol the Baltic Sea and Baltic States in range of Russian borders, jumping from 22 such flights in 2013 to 141 in 2014 according to Russian Air Force officials. NATO flights near the border of Belarus and near Russia’s Kaliningrad region are said to have doubled over the past year, exceeding 3000 in 2014.

In the 1990s a US Naval War College paper hyped air power as “the new gunboat diplomacy,” arguing it offered greater deployment speed and flexibility and a more credible threat inasmuch as the risk of casualties is kept low for any state wielding the air power. “Gunboat” or any kind of military “diplomacy” is basically the threat, or use, of limited military power in a situation other than war. Some threats are latent – like peacetime naval deployments to show the flag, routine strategic bomber patrols, or, in the context of current east-west tensions, the steady eastward expansion of NATO. Others are more immediate and active – like menacing fighter aircraft flights designed, not to directly engage, but to intimidate an adversary into changing behavior in the context of a particular crisis.

The point of current “air power diplomacy” is to communicate resolve and unwavering commitment to keeping Europe’s borders inviolable and the obsolete notion of protecting spheres of influence. There may be some realist logic to ostentatious fighter aircraft maneuvers when the context is a major imbalance of power – when the state threatening the air power can be fully confident that it could make good on its threat without risking any serious retaliatory action. But that’s not remotely the case in the new east-west stand-off. Neither Russia nor NATO could reasonably expect to take direct hostile military action against the other without incurring retaliation, risking escalation, and thus paying a major price.

So why threaten to do what you at all costs do not want to do? It’s a small-scale version of the dilemma of nuclear deterrence – which becomes a form of self-deterrence, and thus impotence, because of the certain knowledge that if the threat were ever acted upon, the only certainty would be self-destruction because the retaliatory commitment and capabilities of the adversary are beyond doubt. So, the threat of nuclear attack rings hollow, because the only relevant result of carrying out the threat would be one’s own nuclear destruction in response.

The bravado in Russian and NATO demonstrations of air power rings similarly hollow and has actually come to symbolize the opposite of what is intended. All rationality says that none of the differences now aggravating east-west relations is amenable to settlement by military means. A European battle employing the weapons systems that are now used as rather un-nuanced messengers of intended intimidation, would lead in a matter of days and weeks to consequences so disastrous and destructive that it is impossible to conceive of any political stake that would justify the mutual assaults. Henry Kissinger once made the point with regard to nuclear weapons – “any use of nuclear weapons is certain to involve a level of casualties and devastation out of proportion to foreseeable foreign policy objectives.” Neither are there any current or foreseeable political objectives in Eurasia that could be effectively advanced by the main east-west protagonists turning their enormous conventional military combat arsenals on each other, and in the process risking escalation to nuclear use.

Does it ever make sense to threaten to do what you know will never be in your interests to do? Symbolic flights of fighter aircraft and bombers are intended to remind the adversary that these weapons are available for use. But in any rational world, they are clearly not available for use by Russia against NATO or by NATO against Russia. There is no circumstance under which this would make sense or serve the interests of either side. Neither side wants them to be used.

Yet, NATO’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a classic case of threatening to do what American and central European NATO states are nevertheless rightly convinced should never be done. NATO decided to establish a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force that would be able to deploy within days in response to a crisis, although there is no case of NATO having been politically ready to respond immediately to a crisis when it was prevented from doing so for reasons of logistics. NATO is now to develop the capacity to attack Russia or its allies within 48 hours, but it is enhancing its capacity to do what it will never do, and should never do, and that is to engage in direct combat with Russia or its immediate allies.

Teddy Roosevelt advised speaking softly while carrying a big stick, but he was counting on just one side having the stick – if both sides have them and they’re both adorned with long spikes on the end, that’s a sign it’s time to speak more clearly and think about another kind of stick.

If reason prevails, air power diplomacy will ultimately be exchanged for real conference table diplomacy, which is already backed by an array of economic and political sanctions. Brandishing arsenals, whether nuclear or conventional, that can be used only to one’s own peril, is above all a way of advertising political impotence.

Published in The Record of the Waterloo Region, 10 January 2015.

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