The following commentary is written by Brian J. Morra, a former Air Force Intelligence officer and retired senior aerospace executive. His most recent article for Air & Space Forces Magazine was “The Near Nuclear War of 1983.” His novel about the 1983 incident, titled The Able Archers, was released in March 2022.
The United States is pursuing a ‘gradualist’ policy in Ukraine, ratcheting up the pressure on the Russian invaders by progressively arming the Ukrainian military. Gradualism didn’t work in Vietnam, and it may not work in Ukraine.
In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson feared that the war in Southeast Asia might escalate out of control. He worried Moscow would threaten Berlin and that the People’s Republic of China might enter Vietnam with massive ground formations like it did in Korea.
Johnson tried to calibrate the American use of force in Vietnam to send nuanced “messages” of American resolve to the leaders in Beijing and Moscow. The White House increased pressure on Hanoi through its air campaign, gradually increasing airstrikes and then backing off to see the impact. Johnson viewed airpower as the key component of this messaging exercise. Johnson’s gradualism and failure to use airpower decisively prolonged the war and led to additional years of death and destruction.
It wasn’t until President Richard Nixon discarded that policy and instead decided to use airpower appropriately that Hanoi finally agreed to get serious about the Paris peace talks.
Today, despite repeated pleas from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for combat aircraft, U.S. President Biden insists that Zelenskyy “doesn’t need” F-16s. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has reinforced the president’s position, indicating that the Biden Administration is carefully measuring Ukraine’s tactical needs on a case-by-case basis. In a classic example of gradualism, Sullivan did not rule out providing Ukraine with F-16s at some later date.
Absent a coherent strategic framework for resolving the conflict, it’s tempting for the Biden Administration to focus on Ukraine’s needs on a week-to-week or a month-to-month basis. That tactical, short-term focus is prolonging the war.
Like Johnson in Vietnam, the Biden administration seeks to orchestrate a carefully calibrated policy in Ukraine. The problem is that wars are messy and unpredictable, calibration is not a precise science, and the enemy may interpret gradualism as weakness.
The Biden administration’s concerns about escalation are legitimate. Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian officials have trotted out threats of nuclear escalation since early in the current conflict—and to great effect. Those threats have limited NATO’s freedom of action and are the root cause of Biden’s incrementalist, gradualist approach. President Biden is managing the risk of escalation by not providing Ukraine what it needs to win decisively.
A long war is not in Ukraine’s interest. Zelenskyy is telling us that time is not on his side and that he needs to achieve a military victory sooner, rather than later. A longer war also increases the potential for Iran and China to arm Russia in earnest. CIA Director William J. Burns has issued public warnings that Beijing may soon expand its role as an arms supplier to Moscow, raising the stakes in the conflict and increasing the risk of escalation.
The Biden administration’s gradualism has taken Washington from providing Ukraine with Javelins and Stingers to sending HIMARS and promising Abrams tanks. Stepping up support over time is not a strategy toward a satisfactory end game, however.
Gradualism in Vietnam led to a disastrous outcome. Let’s not make the same mistake in Ukraine.