The US empire may be history’s last.
The illusion of control that has sustained the US’s nominal government and its behind-the scenes power since World War II is fading both at home and abroad. In many areas the US military is no longer unquestionably superior and in some is demonstrably inferior. As military prowess goes so goes the American empire. Amplifying the decline and compounding its severity are the US’s perilous finances, deteriorating economy, and mounting political unrest.
That US military power was never all it was cracked it up to be was apparent to astute observers after the Korean War, and was obvious after Vietnam. Possible escalation and humanity’s extinction precluded use of nuclear weapons. However, in both Korea and Vietnam local populations, with assistance from outside allies, withstood mind-boggling barrages of conventional bombs and munitions to gain in Korea a stalemate and in Vietnam a victory.
Vietnam demonstrated the difficulty for invaders of fighting determined insurgents using guerrilla tactics—usually labeled terrorism—defending their home territory. The insurgents know the territory and the language and often enjoy the covert support of the local, ostensibly non-combatant population. In Vietnam they also received covert and overt support from China and the USSR.
The insurgents extracted such a price that eventually the American invaders, plagued by protests and political opposition back home, decided conquest wasn’t worth it. Vietnam illustrated a stark reality, never publicly stated by US military or political leaders: to win the war would have required genocide—essentially wiping out the population. Or to paraphrase the saying popular at the time, to save the country the US would have had to destroy it, inflicting far more damage than the gruesome toll it actually exacted.
Fiascos since Vietnam further confirm that guerrilla insurgency remains problematic for the US military. It stymies one of the US’s main geopolitical objectives—forcing smaller countries to toe the US line. Fighting the insurgencies that objective elicits goes hand-in-hand with subversion, propaganda, intelligence skullduggery, and regime change—whatever’s necessary to extract compliance.
If the US can’t defeat insurgents in smaller countries despite its overwhelming advantages in conventional military power, what would happen in a match with someone its own size, another superpower? Here the illusion of control is most deadly.
Nothing is more dangerous than the belief that the US military is second to none and that it can win whatever offensive engagements it is assigned while also protecting the US homeland and its people. Andrei Martyanov demolishes that illusion in his recently published and highly recommended book, The (Real) Revolution In Military Affairs.
On March 1 2018, Vladimir Putin announced new Russian weapons that had either been deployed or were in advanced states of development. Collectively, the new weapons’ most striking features are hypersonic speeds (ability to travel at five times the speed of sound, Mach 5, or faster) and nuclear power.
The Kinzhal missile has a top speed of Mach 10, and the Avangard hypersonic-glide projectile Mach 20. Both can be conventionally or nuclear armed, and are maneuverable throughout their flight trajectories, making defense against one such weapon problematic, a swarm impossible. The Kinzahl has a range of 2000 kilometers (over 1200 miles), while Putin said the Avangard’s range is “intercontinental.”
Putin claimed Russia has also developed nuclear-powered underwater drones and cruise missiles. The drones are faster than any currently deployed surface ship or submarine, have a range of 10,000 kilometers (over 6,000 miles), are cloaked by underwater stealth technology, and can carry both conventional and high-yield nuclear warheads. They can be deployed against surface naval assets like aircraft carrier groups, or placed in a coastal area, armed with a nuclear warhead, and detonated, generating a massive, radioactive tsunami wave.
The nuclear-powered cruise missile can carry conventional and nuclear warheads, is low-flying and highly maneuverable, and has virtually unlimited range. Like the Kinzahl and Avangard, stopping one would be problematic, a swarm impossible. If Putin’s claims about Russia’s nuclear-powered missiles and drones are true, they have achieved state-of-the-art advances in the miniaturization of nuclear power.
The US political establishment and its mainstream punditry, devout believers in American military superiority, either ignored or dismissed Putin’s announcement. Those that addressed it said he was lying without specifying their factual basis for saying so.
To its credit, the US military took the announcement more seriously. From its own efforts to develop hypersonic weapons it knows that such weapons are possible. It asked for and received a significant funding increase for programs to further develop and test hypersonic weapons and defenses against them. While reportedly not as far along as Russia, China is also developing these technologies, some of which are already operational. Among serious military thinkers, Putin’s announcement put a spotlight on the next leg of the arms race: hypersonic speed and miniaturized nuclear power.
To date, no prominent US political figure, even those who reluctantly acknowledge that the Russians may actually have what they claim, has delineated the vital implications of such an arsenal. Most disturbingly, the US has no effective defenses. Russia can also render much of the US’s offensive capabilities irrelevant. Martyanov persuasively makes both cases.
While the US still has its nuclear arsenal to fall back on, Martyanov argues that in conventional warfare, the US has deluded itself. The US’s vaunted air power is increasingly vulnerable to Russian anti-aircraft systems, notably the S-400, the world’s best. Stealth air technology is overrated, its cloaking ever more easily penetrated. High-powered communications, computer, and networking technologies upon which US air power relies are subject to disruption that would leave missiles and jets figuratively flying blind.
Aircraft carrier groups—along with submarines the heart of US naval strategy—are floating dinosaurs. While their proponents claim they can be protected from anti-ship missile clusters, there is no real world validation and given recent improvements in those missiles’ range, maneuverability, and power, reason to believe just the opposite. Demonstrations of antimissile artillery knocking out a single missile on a defined path under ideal conditions are risibly remote from what would be real world conditions in a confrontation with another major power: swarms of maneuverable missiles on random flight paths amidst the general chaos of war. It is foolish to assume carrier invincibility and to base naval strategy or foreign policy on that assumption.
Insurgents have repeatedly battled US forces to a standoff or worse. Two major powers have weapons that can stymie or destroy significant parts of America’s conventional offensive capabilities, that can be used offensively with devastating effect, and for which the US has no defensive countermeasures.
This set of facts is plainly incompatible with the control the US establishment believes it can and should exercise around the world. Russia and China appear to have no such hegemonic aspirations, concentrating their efforts in their own backyards and letting the US waste its blood and treasure on imperialistic adventures. The US’s unipolar moment began fading in 1949 when the Soviet Union detonated its own atomic bomb, but repeated encounters with reality have done little to shake the illusion of control. Economic, financial, and political developments at home render the illusion delusional.
This is Part One, Part Two will be posted next Tuesday.