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Gelb-fulfilling prophecy: Resolve to start a shooting war with Russia

On demanding a military response to Crimea: Two nuclear powers facing off over Ukraine. What could possibly go wrong?

‘Experts and politicians goad the White House on with demands for tough actions against Russia that they surely know will fail,’ wrote Leslie H Gelb in the Daily Beast on 9 March.

Yesterday Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council of Foreign Relations, blogged, ‘Economic sanctions are a good tool, but not a substitute for a credible military options.’

What did he have in mind?

‘The boldest and riskiest course would be to dispatch 50 or 60 of the incredibly potent F-22s to Poland plus Patriot batteries and appropriate ground support and protection. Russian generals and even Putin surely know that the F-22s could smash the far inferior Russian air force and then punish Russian armies invading eastern Ukraine or elsewhere in the region.’

Two F-22 Raptor aircraft flying in column
That, my friends, is one billion dollars flying in the sky: two F-22 Raptor aircraft. Gelb proposes sending loads of these to keep the Russians out of Ukraine. (Photo: USAF)

Does Gelb mean for the White House to deploy these without intending to get into a shooting war with Russia over Ukraine?

‘There’s no sense at all in making this move unless Obama unambiguously resolves to use the F-22s. The worst thing to do is bluff.’

He goes on to propose another option: help the Ukrainians prepare for guerrilla war against the Russians. His reasoning: the Russians fear guerrilla warfare because of their bruising experience in Afghanistan. The US, on the other hand, have presumably become masters of guerrilla warfare mentoring because of…their bruising experience in Afghanistan.

This from the guy who gave us the brilliantly incisive The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked (with Richart Betts) and the Pentagon Papers (with a whole project team).

The US Air Force has about 180 F-22s, for which it paid about half a billion bucks a copy. So far the platform hasn’t fired a shot in anger, or at least not that the Pentagon has revealed. One managed to sneak up on an Iranian Phantom and frighten the pilot.

The one mission for which F-22 was designed and for which F-22 is indispensible is dogfighting against the best Russian (or Chinese) fighters. A scrap with Ivan over Ukraine is about the best chance this aircraft will have to do the job it was designed for.

So Gelb is advocating some serious brinkmanship. Put a load of very expensive aircraft and their highly-prized pilots into Poland with a clear intention to use them against the Russian armed forces. Face down a Russian government eager to distract its population from economic stagnation and the scandal of the Sochi Olympic Games. Two nuclear powers facing off over Ukraine. What could possibly go wrong?

When Cap Weinberger was the American Secretary of Defence he gave a speech laying down principles for using armed forces to coerce. The ‘Weinberger Doctrine’ has generally been honoured more in the breach than the observance, but it is always worth measuring an intervention against this checklist.

(1) First, the United States should not commit forces to combat overseas unless the particular engagement or occasion is deemed vital to our national interest or that of our allies. That emphatically does not mean that we should declare beforehand, as we did with Korea in 1950, that a particular area is outside our strategic perimeter.

(2) Second, if we decide it is necessary to put combat troops into a given situation, we should do so wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of winning. If we are unwilling to commit the forces or resources necessary to achieve our objectives, we should not commit them at all. Of course if the particular situation requires only limited force to win our objectives, then we should not hesitate to commit forces sized accordingly. When Hitler broke treaties and remilitarized the Rhineland, small combat forces then could perhaps have prevented the holocaust of World War II

(3) Third, if we do decide to commit forces to combat overseas, we should have clearly defined political and military objectives. And we should know precisely how our forces can accomplish those clearly defined objectives. And we should have and send the forces needed to do just that. As Clausewitz wrote, “no one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war, and how he intends to conduct it.”

(4) Fourth, the relationship between our objectives and the forces we have committed — their size, composition and disposition — must be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary. Conditions and objectives invariably change during the course of a conflict. When they do change, then so must our combat requirements. We must continuously keep as a beacon light before us the basic questions: “is this conflict in our national interest?” “Does our national interest require us to fight, to use force of arms?” If the answers are “yes”, then we must win. If the answers are “no,” then we should not be in combat.

(5) Fifth, before the U.S. commits combat forces abroad, there must be some reasonable assurance we will have the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress. This support cannot be achieved unless we are candid in making clear the threats we face; the support cannot be sustained without continuing and close consultation. We cannot fight a battle with the Congress at home while asking our troops to win a war overseas or, as in the case of Vietnam, in effect asking our troops not to win, but just to be there.

(6) Finally, the commitment of U.S. forces to combat should be a last resort.

I will leave it to the reader to measure Gelb’s proposed deployment against Weinberger’s checklist. Is there a vital US interest involved? Does the US intend to fight and win? Does the US have clear military and political objectives? Would 40 (excellent) aircraft be sufficient to beat the Russians? Would the American people support a shooting war in Russia? Is there no other way to … to accomplish whatever it is Gelb wants this deployment to accomplish?

I suspect that if Leslie Gelb himself were to go through the exercise he would say that the US doesn’t need to get into a shooting war with Russia over Ukraine. I suspect he would say that deploying $30 billion worth of aircraft to Poland would demonstrate resolve and send a message to Putin.

I’ve quoted Sam Goldwyn before: ‘If you want to send a message, call Western Union.’

About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is Principal at Nusbacher & Associates, a strategy consultancy. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom, was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and served as a military intelligence officer.