Letter from Washington — From the December 2016 issue

The New Red Scare

Reviving the art of threat inflation

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A Russian military “more or less” back in working order doesn’t sound much like an existential threat, nor like one in any shape to “erode the principled international order.” That has not deterred our military leadership from scaremongering rhetoric, as typified by Philip Breedlove, who stepped down as NATO’s commander in May. Breedlove spent much of his three-year tenure issuing volleys of alarmist pronouncements. On various occasions throughout the Ukrainian conflict, he reported that 40,000 Russian troops were on that nation’s border, poised to invade; that regular Russian army units were operating inside Ukraine; that international observers were reporting columns of Russian troops and heavy weapons entering Ukraine. These claims proved to be exaggerated or completely false. Yet Breedlove continued to hit the panic button. “What is clear,” he told Washington reporters in February 2015, “is that right now, it is not getting better. It is getting worse every day.”

The Washington Menu, 1984, photomontage

The Washington Menu, 1984, photomontage

In reality, the fighting had almost completely died down at that point. There was still no sign of the armored Russian invaders Breedlove had unblushingly described. This in no way fazed the general, whose off-duty relaxation runs to leather-clad biker jaunts. His private emails, a portion of which were pilfered and released by a hacker organization called DC Leaks (rapidly and inevitably billed as a Kremlin tool), revealed him to be irritated by Obama’s dovishness and eager to pressure the White House for a change of policy. “I think POTUS sees us as a threat that must be minimized,” he complained to a Washington friend in a 2014 email.

Breedlove’s spurious claims, which were echoed by the U.S. Army commander in Europe, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, reportedly caused considerable agitation in Berlin, where officials let it be known that they considered such assertions “dangerous propaganda” without any foundation in fact. Der Spiegel, citing sources in Washington, insisted that such statements were by no means off the cuff, but had clearance from the Pentagon and White House. The aim, according to William Drozdiak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe, was to “goad the Europeans into jacking up defense spending” — and the campaign seems to have worked. Several NATO members, including Germany, have now begun raising their defense spending to the levels demanded by the United States.

Russian actions, when interpreted as threateningly aggressive, have been a boon to the defense establishment. But talking up Russian capabilities is no less important for nurturing defense budgets in the long term — in case the Kremlin’s foreign policy should take on an inconveniently peaceful turn. So, just as those U.S. generals returned home from a desolate Russia in the mid-1950s convinced that Soviet weapons makers were about to challenge American technical superiority, Russian weapons are today receiving glowing reviews from U.S. military leaders.

Last June, for example, Vice Admiral James Foggo, commander of the Sixth Fleet, told The National Interest that the Russians had upped their game on submarine warfare. He singled out for praise the Severodvinsk, a 13,800-ton behemoth. Foggo also noted that the Russians were “building a number of stealthy hybrid diesel-electric submarines and deploying them around the theatre.” In the same article, Alarik Fritz, a senior official with the Center for Naval Analyses and an adviser to Foggo, described these hybrid vessels as some of the most dangerous threats faced by the U.S. Navy: “They’re a concern for us and they’re highly capable — and they’re a very agile tool of the Russian military.”

A closer look reveals something less impressive. The sinister-sounding description “hybrid diesel-electric” refers to a submarine equipped with a small nuclear reactor that is used to power up the electric batteries that drive the boat while it is underwater. (On the surface, it relies on diesel power.) Despite the admiral’s casual reference to “a number” of such boats, the Russians have built just one, the Sarov. It was laid down in 1988 and entered service in 2008, after which they apparently decided to build no more. In any case, the design concept sounds strange — as the batteries need topping up, the reactor, described by engineers as a “nuclear teakettle,” is switched on and off. This would be a cumbersome and noisy process, the opposite of stealthy. In any event, there is little sign of a surge in Russian submarine building, which seems to be proceeding very, very slowly. The dreaded Severodvinsk, laid down in 1993, took twenty-one years to be built and enter active service. The Sarov, that “very agile tool” of the Evil Empire, took twenty years.

Similar distortion proliferates in depictions of the Russian and, for that matter, the Chinese air force. (China has yet to be raised to “existential” threat status — maybe because we owe them so much money.) Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan, published by the USAF this year, asserts that the service’s “projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against [the expected] array of potential adversary capabilities.” Unsurprisingly, this gloomy forecast is followed by an urgent plea for more money. In contrast, Pierre Sprey, who may certainly be considered an authority on fighter design, observes that even the latest Russian fighters are “huge, awfully short-ranged, and relatively unmaneuverable, except at low speeds — which is good for air shows and nothing else. Their ‘latest’ models are basically the same old machines, such as the MiG-29, which has been around for years, with a few trendy add-ons. But they’ve realized that you can sell more airplanes abroad if you change the number, so the MiG-29 has become the MiG-35, and so on.”

Needless to say, Russia’s land forces are being accorded a status no less ominous than its subs and planes. “The performance of Russian artillery in Ukraine,” according to Robert Scales, a retired Army general who is esteemed by many of his peers as a military intellectual, “strongly demonstrates that, over the past two decades, the Russians have gotten a technological jump on us.” The Russians’ T-14 Armata tank is similarly hailed in the defense press as a “source of major concern for Western armies.”

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Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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