Leadership: The Grand Illusions

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August 25, 2009: The head of the Russian Air Force sees the establishment of the U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command (GSC) as a threat. Some Russians see GSC as a resumption of the Cold War, because it is basically the old Strategic Air Command (SAC), a force which includes ICBMs and long range bombers. The Russians somehow missed the real reason for the establishment of GSC; the need to achieve better security and control over nuclear weapons (which declined to embarrassing levels after SAC was broken up in the 1990s.)

The Russian air force generals appear to be reviving Cold War Russian politics, where scary stories about what SAC could do persuaded the Politburo (the committee of communist bureaucrats who ran the country before 1991) to provide lots of money to keep the Russian air and missile forces large and growing. Since the end of the Cold War, all that money went away (as in it wasn't there, because of the steady decline of the Russian economy under communist mismanagement). Now that the communist bureaucrats are gone, the economy has revived, and all the generals and admirals are scrambling for a larger chunk of the growing defense budget. All of the services had fallen to pieces because of the sharp decline in the defense budget after 1991. The Russian Air Force, for example, wants billions for a new anti-aircraft missile, the S500, that could knock down low flying satellites, as well as low flying stealth bombers.

All this exists in a climate where most Russians have not come to terms with no longer being one of the world's two superpowers. Russia today is a much diminished version of the Soviet Union. The population of 140 million is shrinking because of a plunging birth rate, and falling life expectancy. The Russian GDP, at $900 billion, is less than seven percent of the United States (which has more than twice as many people). That, however, is an improvement. In the early 1990s, when economists and accountants got the first good look at the Russian economy since the early 20th century, it was found that the Russian GDP was about four percent of the U.S. GDP. Add back all the lost components of the Soviet Union, and you still don't have a GDP amounting to more than six percent of the American one. How did the Soviet Union achieve superpower status on such a thin economic base? They did it mostly with illusion, and an excessive arms budget that ruined the economy. Starting in the 1960s, the military got a priority on government spending, and permission to build an industrial complex that dominated the entire economy. This was part of a political deal, to keep one faction of the Communist Party in power.

 With a GDP more than ten times the size of the Soviet Unions, the U.S. could spend five percent of GDP on defense, and far outspend the Soviet Union. Worse yet, Soviet accounting practices, like so much else they did, were opaque and self-delusional. It wasn't until after the Soviet Union collapsed that anyone could get an idea of how large the Soviet defense budgets were, and it turned out they were less than half the size of the American ones. Suddenly, a lot of Soviet military policies made sense. Russia bought lots of weapons, but did not have the money to maintain them, or even allow the troops to train with them. That was known, and in light of how the Soviet defense budget was set up, was now understandable, and seen as inevitable.

 The really bad news is, most Russians are still not aware of how screwed up their Soviet era military was. There are two reasons for this. First, Russians take for granted how their armed forces operates. Russians complain about the brutality and incompetence in the military, but that's all they've ever known. They accept it. Second, Russians remember fondly that their ramshackle armed forces defeated the Germans during World War II. What the Russians play down is how much the Germans lost World War II in Russia, rather than being beaten. The Germans made a lot of serious mistakes during the war, while the Russians got their act together.

What Russians fail to realize is that the Soviet Union was an accidental, and largely imaginary, superpower. Russia has long employed large scale deception, and the Soviet Union continued this on a sustained basis. Military weaknesses (poor training and readiness) were hidden, and strengths (sheer number of weapons and troops) emphasized. But as was seen many times (from Budapest in 1956, to Chechnya in 1994), the Soviet military system produced little in the way of real military power. Soviet weapons, as impressive as they appeared to be, always came out a distant second when they were used against Western ones. The main thing that kept the Soviet military reputation going was the need of Western generals and admirals to make the Soviet Union look strong, in order to justify high Western military budgets.

The one effective weapon the Soviets did have were their nuclear armed ballistic missiles. Better maintained than the rest of the military, enough of this missile fleet would work, if used, to devastate Western nations. Russia still has a large part of that nuclear arsenal. But that does not make Russians feel like a superpower. That's because Russia no longer has the huge fleet, air force and army. And that's because this huge force was all an expensive illusion, which was disbanded in the 1990s, once it was obvious what a waste it all was. But the big thing that's missing is the size of the Soviet Union. Over half the population of the Soviet Union were not Russian, and did not want to be part of the Soviet Union. Most of these people got their wish in 1991, when the Soviet Union came apart. Many Russians want to undo that, but they cannot. It took Russia over four centuries to build that empire, and the inept Soviet bureaucrats a few weeks to lose it all. An increasing number of Russians want it back, but are unwilling to confront how they lost it in the first place, or why rebuilding the empire is an uncertain and dangerous enterprise. This is all very dangerous stuff. Just like believing that America revived SAC in order to threaten Russia.

 

 


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