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General News    H3'ed 10/11/20

Tomgram: Michael Klare, A Game of Nuclear Chicken with Russia and China

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The MQ-9 Reaper, a drone armed with Hellfire missiles, has been a workhorse in Washington's forever wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa, but its days could be numbered. According to Air Force Magazine, that service "has grown skeptical that the Reaper could hold its own against advanced nations like Russia and China, which could shoot the non-stealthy aircraft down or jam its transmissions." While more advanced drones may be coming, however, the Reaper's still where it's at. Not so surprisingly, then, that plane is now being repurposed to use not just against Afghans or Iranians or Iraqis or Somalis, but the Chinese.

That fits with the Pentagon's urge to leave those forever wars behind (as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change, has been writing at this site for a surprisingly long time). Its top strategists would prefer instead to focus on recreating a nostalgia-filled twenty-first-century version of the Cold War. One sign of this: in recent naval exercises off the California coast in which three Reapers "performed airstrikes during [a] simulated amphibious assault on San Clemente Island," the military unit responsible for those planes sported a dramatic new shoulder patch. It displayed a Reaper over a silhouetted all-red map of... well, yes, I guess it must still be "Red China."

And if you don't consider that ominous, then check out Klare's piece today on the nuclearization -- such a term should exist, if it doesn't already -- of American "diplomacy." Tom

Talking Tough and Carrying a Radioactive Stick>
The Nuclearization of American Diplomacy
By Michael T. Klare

On August 21st, six nuclear-capable B-52H Stratofortress bombers, representing approximately one-seventh of the war-ready U.S. B-52H bomber fleet, flew from their home base in North Dakota to Fairford Air Base in England for several weeks of intensive operations over Europe. Although the actual weapons load of those giant bombers was kept secret, each of them is capable of carrying eight AGM-86B nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) in its bomb bay. Those six planes, in other words, could have been carrying 48 city-busting thermonuclear warheads. (The B-52H can also carry 12 ALCMs on external pylons, but none were visible on this occasion.) With such a load alone, in other words, those six planes possessed the capacity to incinerate much of western Russia, including Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The B-52 Stratofortress is no ordinary warplane. First flown in 1952, it was designed with a single purpose in mind: to cross the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean and drop dozens of nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union. Some models were later modified to deliver tons of conventional bombs on targets in North Vietnam and other hostile states, but the remaining B-52s are still largely configured for intercontinental nuclear strikes. With only 44 of them now thought to be in active service at any time, those six dispatched to the edge of Russian territory represented a significant commitment of American nuclear war-making capability.

What in god's name were they doing there? According to American officials, they were intended to demonstrate this country's ability to project overwhelming power anywhere on the planet at any time and so remind our NATO allies of Washington's commitment to their defense. "Our ability to quickly respond and assure allies and partners rests upon the fact that we are able to deploy our B-52s at a moment's notice," commented General Jeff Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe. "Their presence here helps build trust with our NATO allies... and affords us new opportunities to train together through a variety of scenarios."

While Harrigian didn't spell out just what scenarios he had in mind, the bombers' European operations suggest that their role involved brandishing a nuclear "stick" in support of an increasingly hostile stance toward Russia. During their sojourn in Europe, for example, two of them flew over the Baltic Sea close to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania that houses several key military installations. That September 25th foray coincided with a U.S. troop buildup in Lithuania about 65 miles from election-embattled Belarus, a Russian neighbor.

Since August 9th, when strongman Alexander Lukashenko declared victory in a presidential election widely considered fraudulent by his people and much of the international community, Belarus has experienced recurring anti-government protests. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that his country might intervene there if the situation "gets out of control," while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has implicitly warned of U.S. intervention if Russia interferes. "We stand by our long-term commitment to support Belarus' sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as the aspiration of the Belarusian people to choose their leader and to choose their own path, free from external intervention," he insisted on August 20th. The flight of those B-52s near Belarus can, then, be reasonably interpreted as adding a nuclear dimension to Pompeo's threat.

In another bomber deployment with no less worrisome implications, on September 4th, three B-52s, accompanied by Ukrainian fighter planes, flew over the Black Sea near the coast of Russian-held Crimea. Like other B-52 sorties near its airspace, that foray prompted the rapid scrambling of Russian interceptor aircraft, which often fly threateningly close to American planes.

At a moment when tensions were mounting between the U.S.-backed Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebel areas in the eastern part of the country, the deployment of those bombers off Crimea was widely viewed as yet another nuclear-tinged threat to Moscow. As Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), tweeted, "Extraordinary decision to send a nuclear bomber so close to contested and tense areas. This is a real in-your-face statement."

And provocative as they were, those were hardly the only forays by U.S. nuclear bombers in recent months. B-52s also ventured near Russian air space in the Arctic and within range of Russian forces in Syria. Meanwhile other B-52s, as well as nuclear-capable B-1 and B-2 bombers, have flown similar missions near Chinese positions in the South China Sea and the waters around the disputed island of Taiwan. Never since the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 have so many U.S. nuclear bombers been engaged in "show-of-force" operations of this sort.

"Demonstrating Resolve" and Coercing Adversaries

States have long engaged in military operations to intimidate other powers. Once upon a distant time, this would have been called "gunboat diplomacy" and naval vessels would have been the instruments of choice for such missions. The arrival of nuclear arms made such operations far more dangerous. This didn't, however, stop the U.S. from using weaponry of this sort as tools of intimidation throughout the Cold War. In time, however, even nuclear strategists began condemning acts of "nuclear coercion," arguing that such weaponry was inappropriate for any purpose other than "deterrence" -- that is, using the threat of "massive retaliation" to prevent another country from attacking you. In fact, a deterrence-only posture eventually became Washington's official policy, even if the temptation to employ nukes as political cudgels never entirely disappeared from its strategic thinking.

At a more hopeful time, President Barack Obama sought to downsize this country's nuclear arsenal and prevent the use of such weapons for anything beyond deterrence (although his administration also commenced an expensive "modernization" of that arsenal). In his widely applauded Nobel Peace Prize speech of April 5, 2009, Obama swore to "put an end to Cold War thinking" and "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy." Unfortunately, Donald Trump has sought to move the dial in the opposite direction, including increasing the use of nukes as coercive instruments.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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