U.S. Adm. William Gortney, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, warned Congress in written testimony Thursday of the threat posed by Russian bombers and missiles. Having written yesterday about the uncertainty in Moscow surrounding the status of Russian President Vladimir Putin, we deemed it worthwhile to consider Gortney's testimony more seriously than we might under other circumstances.
Gortney wrote: "Russian heavy bombers flew more out-of-area patrols in 2014 than in any year since the Cold War. We have also witnessed improved interoperability between Russian long-range aviation and other elements of the Russian military, including air and maritime intelligence collection platforms positioned to monitor NORAD responses." The patrols help to train Russian air crews, but some are "clearly intended to underscore Moscow's global reach and communicate its displeasure with Western policies, particularly with regard to Ukraine."
"Russia is progressing toward its goal of deploying long-range, conventionally-armed cruise missiles with ever increasing stand-off launch distances on its heavy bombers, submarines and surface combatants," Gortney said. "Should these trends continue, over time NORAD will face increased risk in our ability to defend North America against Russian air, maritime, and cruise missile threats."
We are again focusing on the changing concerns and rhetoric of all parties. Statements such as this would have been unthinkable a few years ago. While we understand that the head of NORAD is charged with monitoring the threats — and that may distort his outlook — and while we accept that testimony to Congress involves the important matter of the budget, it is still important to take this statement seriously.
The question is how seriously? The Russians still have their nuclear capability from the Cold War. We will assume that at least some, perhaps most, of the missiles and warheads have been maintained in operational condition. In any case, the Russians retain a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile capability, and can strike the United States, with the only counter being a strike on Russia.
A Russian Foreign Ministry official reminded the world of this fact in a comment to Russian media outlet Interfax on Wednesday. Referencing Moscow's right to deploy nuclear weapons in Crimea, Mikhail Ulyanov, head of the ministry's Department on Arms Control, said, "I don't know if there are nuclear weapons there now. I don't know about any plans, but in principle Russia can do it."
It has long been taken for granted that the nuclear balance was not relevant, and indeed it hasn't been. During the Cold War, the most likely scenario for the use of nuclear weapons would have been that the Soviets would have attacked Germany, overwhelming it and moving toward the channel ports. With no conventional option for the United States in response, the United States would have lived up to its pledge to protect Europe with nuclear weapons.
There were other scenarios for nuclear war, including the spasmodic launching of all missiles in each arsenal. That was unlikely, however, because it invoked mutual assured destruction. It was never clear to us why a nuclear strike at the Soviet Union would have stopped a Soviet advance, or why it would not have triggered a spasmodic Russian strike. Indeed, it was never clear that the United States would have used nuclear weapons under any circumstances. Charles de Gaulle used to argue that the United States could not be relied on to risk American cities to protect Europe. He may well have been right.
For Russia's part, there were also discussions of using nuclear weapons to facilitate a conventional advance. Russian ground forces during the Cold War practiced intensively, and in fact still do occasionally, on operating in contaminated areas following a nuclear strike that would have severely weakened enemy positions. In such a case, of course, a conventional conflict would quickly have escalated by inviting a nuclear response from the United States.
The point of it all was that the Soviets could not be certain of what the Americans would do in response to a nuclear strike, so the U.S. nuclear threat served, along with other factors, to deter a Soviet invasion. The Russians are now concerned, rightly or wrongly, that a U.S. presence in Ukraine might threaten Russia's territorial integrity. The U.S. response — that the United States does not intend to insert massive force into Ukraine in the first place, and in the second place does not intend to invade Russia — does not soothe Russian war planners. They see the United States much as the United States sees Russia: unpredictable, ruthless and dangerous.
To assure themselves that they can deter the United States, particularly given their conventional weaknesses, they have several times publicly reminded the Americans that in engaging Russia, they are engaging a peer nuclear adversary. The various missions that Gortney has cited simply represent an extension of that capability.
We have come a long way to reach the point where Russia chooses to assert its strategic nuclear capability, and where the commander of NORAD regards this capability as a significant risk. But the point is that we have come far indeed in the past year. For the Russians, the overthrow of the government in Ukraine was a threat to their national security. What the Russians did in Ukraine is seen as a threat at least to U.S. interests.
In the old Cold War, both sides used their nuclear capability to check conventional conflicts. The Russians at this point appear to be at least calling attention to their nuclear capability. Unconnected to this, to be sure, is Putin's odd absence. In a world where nuclear threats are returning to prominence, the disappearance of one side's commander-in-chief is more worrisome than it would be at other times.