Russian President Vladimir Putin. TASS via Kremlin.
Photo Caption & Credits

Editorial: Russia, China, and Air Power Politics

Jan. 20, 2022

Vladimir Putin is playing the West like a fine violin. He claims NATO is somehow responsible for his amassing 100,000 troops along Russia’s border with Ukraine. He blows up a derelict satellite scattering thousands of pieces of debris and claims there is no danger as a result. He launches paratroopers into neighboring Kazakhstan to quell uprisings there and rattles sabers in Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania. There are ethnic Russians in each of these places, he says. Russia has sovereign interests as a result. 

Putin presides over a corrupt government and a broken economy. He’s overly reliant on energy exports and cybercrime may be his biggest growth industry. But Bad Vlad has two things going for him: A robust military-industrial capability that continues to develop world-class weapons, and a ring of smaller, weaker neighbors. He wants to reestablish the old order and regain as much of the former Soviet Union as possible. Hearkening to the Khrushchev era, he’s even suggested deploying troops to Cuba. Venezuela is another option. Anything to irk the United States and inflate NATO as a threat to Mother Russia. 

The United States and NATO, meanwhile, dance to the Russian president’s tune. They warn vaguely of “far-reaching” and “high-impact” sanctions but cannot agree what those should be. Germany objects to the obvious—blocking the opening of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that links the two countries and bypasses Ukraine—and other options lack the teeth to truly crimp Putin’s style. 

In playing the victim, Putin evokes Adolf Hitler in September 1938. Hitler insisted all he wanted was to shelter the Sudeten Germans, claimed no quarrel with the Czech state, no designs on Poland, no fight with Russia. The Sudetenland, he said, was “the last problem that must be solved.” 

Neville Chamberlain fell for the ploy, returning from their Munich summit that month to declare he had secured “peace for our time.” His time was short. Hitler invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany, and within two years Hitler occupied Belgium, Holland, and France, plus half of Poland, and was pounding Britain and Russia.

Whether Putin really intends to invade Ukraine is unclear. He may not know himself. He could be merely trying to squeeze NATO and to rattle his neighbors. If cracks appear in NATO’s armor or resolve, he can seize the opportunity; if NATO holds fast, he retains the first-mover advantage. Meanwhile, he seeks to build a stronger alliance with China, his modern-day version of Germany’s tie-up with Imperial Japan. The more closely Putin can align his interests with Xi Jinping, the stronger both become as they seek to split the West. 

In playing the victim, Putin evokes Adolf Hitler in September 1938. 

The U.S. needs both hard and soft power to counter Russia and China’s expansionist objectives. Strategic bombers with their long reach, stealth fighters that can evade enemy air defenses, and long-range strike weapons that can inflict pain from afar are the hard-power tools that can keep Russian from strategic adventurism. American needs more of all of them. Likewise, it needs a robust and resilient space architecture to dissuade China and Russia from launching military strikes in space. 

These are the systems that will count most. NATO can put tripwire forces closer to Ukraine or deploy Patriot or other defenses there and in the Baltic States. But those are not the threats Russia fears; it’s aerial threats that pose the greatest risks to Russia. 

Soft power, diplomatic persuasion does play a role, but America and NATO cannot deal away the sovereign rights of Russia’s neighbors as Chamberlain did in ’38. Whether NATO expands eastward is up to NATO and those nations seeking to join the alliance, not Russia. However much it wants to regain its iron grip on Eastern Europe, the East Europeans get a say. 

Diplomats must deal from a position of strength to persuade Russia where its best interests lie. The credible threat of force is essential to their argument. 

Russia, of course, is not operating in a vacuum. Stirring up instability in Eastern Europe has implications throughout the world. Distracting the United States from its reasonable and healthy preoccupation with China benefits the People’s Republic two ways: First, by splitting America’s diplomatic attention, and second, by spreading out available military forces. The net effect is to diminish America’s capacity to deter both China and Russia—let alone to fight and win.

This is where size matters. China’s growing military is larger than America’s and beginning to approach and in some areas surpass U.S. capability. Russia is similarly gaining ground. Worse, while America’s military was once designed to fight two wars simultaneously, that is no longer the case. Our Air Force is not sized for a two-war challenge. 

Drawing down at the end of the Cold War, America doubled down on a strategy that accepted a smaller force so long as it remained the most sophisticated and capable on Earth. Unfortunately, the military envisioned by planners two decades ago never materialized. 

Then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper and his successor, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, anticipated a force comprised of roughly 2,000 fifth-generation F-22s and F-35s. But that force was shot down before it was ever built. Fewer than 20 percent of USAF fighters and bombers are stealthy today, and one in three fighters—the entire F-15C/D and A-10 fleets—are useless in a peer fight. 

We can look to the promise of unmanned, autonomous aircraft to supplement and defend manned fighters, but we must also be realistic. Innovative technologies rarely perform to expectations right out of the box. Artificial intelligence is remarkably good and getting better at simple tasks, but so far it hasn’t replaced car drivers, let alone fighter pilots. Cultural resistance is a harder problem. Americans love the AI in Siri, Alexa, and digital maps, but we don’t trust AI with medical diagnoses or TSA luggage inspection. We accept when human analysts express 95 percent certainty about a target, but if a computer professes the same  95 percent certainty, we have doubts. Either can make mistakes, but we don’t yet have equal trust in the computer.  

U.S. military strategy still depends on technology to be a force multiplier, but as rivals catch up, America needs more than mere promises of future capability. We need advanced capability, and we need it in volume. Without both, America will be hard-pressed to deter these major rivals.