Matt Gurney: Huh, who'd have guessed. It turns out we needed more Cold War thinking
The defence hawk weirdos who sweated blood with each abandoned capability were right. History wasn't over. Putin understood that. We didn't.
"Governor Romney," then-U.S. president Barack Obama said in 2012, during a presidential election debate, "I'm glad you recognize al-Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what is the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaida. You said Russia. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back. Because the Cold War has been over for 20 years."
I vaguely remembered Obama's criticism of Romney from the time. It seemed off to me even then — especially for the U.S., the world's policeman, which absolutely had to worry about terror groups like al-Qaida and powerful geopolitical rivals like Russia at the same time. But that was the minority view; the line was widely considered a winner for Obama during the debate, and he won re-election, after all. Hell, the article I copied and pasted the text out of, published back in 2012 at the time of the debate, called it a "zing."
Some zinger. Wonder how it would play in the bomb shelters of Kyiv today.
As I write this, night is falling again in Ukraine, and the second day of the war launched by Russia on Wednesday evening (Eastern time; the dead of Thursday night locally) is set to begin. Russia has bombarded numerous positions across Ukraine with missiles, airstrikes, artillery and naval gunfire. It has launched ground offensives on multiple fronts and has landed airborne forces deep inside Ukraine to attack high-value targets. Reports from the scene and Western intelligence agencies say that Ukrainian forces are fighting well and have achieved some victories, or at least held the line, in some places. But the math is what it is. Ukraine is badly outnumbered and outgunned by a technologically superior enemy force, which U.S. intelligence believes has not yet committed its full strength to battle. Ukraine can't win this war; its best-case scenario is holding onto enough of its territory to maintain some kind of rump government that can sustain, with Western support, an insurgency campaign that will eventually bleed Russia white or create so much political pain for Putin's regime that Russia quits the war. This could well work — the Russian military forces are largely made up of conscripts of uncertain competency and morale, and it's not clear that their equipment, much of which is quite old, can sustain the wear-and-tear of a long campaign. Russia's military may well prove all strength but no cardio — overwhelmingly powerful at first, but not able to sustain any level of exertion for long.
As far as best-case scenarios go, for the Ukrainians, that's a lousy one. The only kind of war they can realistically fight is one that would be absolutely ruinous, in terms of lives and property, to their country. A guerrilla war in urban areas would absolutely kill a lot of Russians. It would also destroy Ukraine's cities, and its people inside them. Some “best case.”
Meanwhile, for the NATO countries, particularly those on the alliance's eastern flank, the best-case scenario is that all the death and destruction stays on the Ukrainian side of the border, and doesn't spill over into the NATO countries. The danger of a wider war is real — it's not likely, but it's very possible. This is the most dangerous geopolitical crisis since the Cuban Missile Crisis, or perhaps the 1983 Able Archer near-disaster. (That's lesser known to the general public, and fascinating, but if your interest is piqued, maybe wait a while before looking it up. I didn't sleep for days after I studied it years ago.)
The war in Ukraine will last weeks, or possibly years, in an insurgency scenario. The Line will cover it as best we can; for now, all I can really say about the specifics there is that the Ukrainians seem to be fighting bravely, seemingly to Putin's surprise, and I hope we provide them every bit of support we can to keep them in the fight for as long as they can hold out. It seems sheer madness to have a ground war in Europe in 2022, but perhaps I am committing the exact same kind of mental sin that I warned others of in a column here a few months ago: maybe my expectations are a problem.
In the meantime, as events in Europe unfold, I've been thinking a lot these last few days about a phrase we've heard often in recent years: "Cold War thinking." Or the related "Cold War-style." In the West, we used those terms as insults. Polite ones — the kind you can get away with in op-eds or seminars — but insults all the same. To engage in Cold War thinking, or propose a Cold War-style solution, was to instantly reveal yourself as a dinosaur, obsolete. Behind the times. This was most especially true in military affairs and national security thinking more broadly. Don't you know the Cold War's, like, totally over, man? The 80s called, to channel Mr. Obama, and they want their foreign policy back. Chortle chortle.
It's worth taking a minute to specify what "Cold War thinking" or "Cold War-style" has meant when used as an insult, particularly for military affairs, and for that, we need to briefly discuss the last period of the Cold War. During the 1980s, after the 70s-era detente had passed, both sides indulged in a major build-up of military forces. In the end, of course, the Soviets couldn't afford to keep up, but while the arms race lasted, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact amassed military forces for an air and ground war in Europe and a naval war across the seas that suited their respective strengths. The Soviet bloc forces had huge reserves of conscripted manpower and tanks and mobile artillery as the primary weapons of their late-Cold War arsenal; their plan for a conventional conflict was simply to blast their way through NATO defences deep into western Europe, and hope we surrendered before someone pushed the button. Overwhelming firepower and numerical superiority was the core of their plan.
The NATO plans, meanwhile, involved more use of high-tech weapons that we could invent and build en masse, like huge fleets of cutting-edge fighter jets, as well as tank-killing missiles. We'd fight smart. The democracies couldn't afford the economic and political price of fielding armies the size of what the Soviets could draft, and besides, the most powerful member of NATO, the United States, was all the way on the other side of the Atlantic. NATO understood that we'd be outnumbered in any fight, so we spent on quality, and counted on the fact that it's easier to defend ground than seize it.
Despite the differing strategies, though, the armies looked more alike than different: large divisions of heavy forces, lavishly equipped with artillery and tanks and armoured vehicles, backed up by many squadrons of helicopters and jet fighters, all of which guzzled fuel and lubricants and spare parts at a ferocious clip.
Okay, that's the history lesson — now let's move past the Cold War. It's post-1991, the Soviet Union is a bad memory and many of its former allies are eagerly embracing economic and political reforms, joining NATO and the European Union, and all that. The Western powers, by the mid-1990s, are starting to realize that they're spending a fortune maintaining large standing armies, navies and air forces for a war that now seems, to put it mildly, unlikely. Why are we still maintaining all these damned tanks and attack helicopters and fighter squadrons? Do we really need all these sub-hunting frigates and attack submarines? The so-called "peace dividend" cheque had arrived, and most of our governments eagerly cashed it. Many Western militaries were aggressively downsized; warehouses were filled with surplus equipment, to be sold off or scrapped. The Americans were somewhat less eager than the rest to disarm — they had global commitments, after all. But even they downsized.
After the 9/11 attacks and the U.S.'s decision to invade Iraq, the pressure to abandon "Cold War thinking" or "Cold War-style" militaries became even more urgent. The Taliban didn't have fighter jets. Iraqi insurgents didn't have tanks. What we needed in those conflicts were men, armed with precision weapons such as guided missiles and drones, that could flatten a sniper position without killing the kids playing in the yard next door (in theory, anyway). Older Cold War-vintage officers retired, younger post-9/11 ones replaced them, and across the West, beancounters in and out of uniform began looking with ever-greater distaste at the annual budget lines devoted to keeping battalions of tanks and self-propelled guns in service. What good are these relics in a modern, low-intensity counterinsurgency war? We'd get much more bang-for-buck with a few more infantry battalions and some drones than we would from all these Cold War-style tanks, after all.
To be clear: this wasn't wrong. These decisions all made sense in their own context. Heavy divisions are incredibly expensive. They're also a gigantic pain in the ass to move. In the last decade of the 20th century, and the first two decades of the 21st, there really was a rational case for a lot of these policy choices: a Western government, especially a mid-sized power like Canada or Australia, would get more "bang for buck" out of an infantry brigade it could actually deploy to some hotspot in the world than it would a tank division it would cost a fortune just to move and then keep supplied, and the infantry would likely be more useful for the task at hand, too.
The failure, though, was those expectations again. We assumed that we'd never need the heavy, nasty stuff — history had ended. We cut our budgets and our force levels again and again, until many of our critical capabilities really exist on paper only. Canada's fighter jet fleet of alarmingly elderly CF-18s is large enough to technically meet the requirements of keeping a few jets on alert for NORAD missions, intercepting the odd plane near our airspace, and showing the flag on NATO missions. We can even hurl some bombs on enemy groups that are annoying us, as we did with the Islamic State, because, well, they can't shoot back. Our navy is much the same: we have a fleet large and capable enough to more-or-less patrol parts of our own coast and contribute to the odd international patrol mission abroad, because doing so buys us some diplomatic credibility — it is table stakes for being a sorta-paid-up member of the Western alliance. Our army has enough men and equipment to help out with domestic missions at home or to contribute in small missions to broader coalition efforts, though it’s a struggle to do both at the same time. That's basically all we assumed we'd need, and we "rationalized" our budget and capabilities accordingly.
Again, yes, this made sense for a time. But it was obvious a decade or so ago — around when Obama was mocking Romney — that China was a power on the rise. Russia invaded Ukraine the first time in 2014. That was another wakeup call we ignored. For the last decade, certainly for the last five years, we've indulged in a kind of make-believe defence policy planning, where we were enthralled to an increasingly obsolete and dangerous post-Cold War mindset that was as narrow and misguided as the “Cold War thinking” the soft-power advocates of the post-1991 era disdained among the old guard.
We defence hawk weirdos who sweated blood with each abandoned capability were right, though. History wasn't over. We hadn't seen the end of great power war, or at least the real danger of it. The world is a dangerous place. This might be a surprise in the corridors of power in Ottawa, but it’s not like they weren’t warned. I’ve got 15 years of National Post bylines to prove it.
We are missing critical capabilities that our troops would need — need — in order to not get wiped out in a conflict with a relatively modern opponent. The Canadian Army has very good armoured vehicles for infantry. That's good! Our LAVs are genuinely excellent. But we don't have self-propelled artillery. We have only a few dozen tanks, and very little anti-tank missile capability (anti-tank missiles can be fired by infantry on foot or from vehicles; we don't have a ton of missiles to go around in any case). Recruitment has lagged, and we are notoriously slow at actually processing an applicant into service. Perhaps most alarmingly in the current context, the Canadian military has basically zero air defence capability. If under air attack by helicopters, attack aircraft or, increasingly, drones, our guys could fire wildly into the air and hope to get lucky. That's about it.
It's a classic Canadian procurement story, of course, and perfectly emblematic of the bigger problem. We used to have mobile air defence. We didn't have a ton, but we had 36 M113 armoured vehicles — an older vehicle, but a proven workhorse — that came armed with eight missiles that could be used against attacking air threats or tanks (given our paltry anti-tank capability, that’s two birds with one stone!). We procured the “ADATS” vehicles right at the end of the Cold War, never ended up needing them on any of our missions during the 1990s and early 2000s, and scrapped them without replacement in 2012, because Stephen Harper had a budget to balance and didn't want to spend a bunch of bucks either modernizing the system or buying something new. We realized by 2019 that that was a bad idea, and began a procurement process to replace them, and the earliest we could expect delivery is ... the end of this decade.
So for now, we try to buddy up with allies that have anti-air defences, or expect our troops in the field to put their faith in the Lord and mediocre Russian targeting systems. But even if we rush a procurement of some air-defence systems, that would just plug one gap among many. Why the hell haven't we picked a fighter jet by now? Oh, yeah: Because no leader wants to spend the money and assumed we'd never need them, anyway. Oops! Why haven't we gotten the new navy ships under construction, or begun work on the next-generation submarines? Huh, that's weird — it's the same reason: we're cheap and assumed we wouldn't need them, so flaking out wasn’t risky. Why aren't we pushing ahead with NORAD radar modernization? Why was buying trucks such an ordeal? Why are we still incapable of buying a new 9mm pistol? Same, same and same.
For the politicians, military spending is a boring and distracting waste of money they'd rather spend on something they think voters would like. This is a mindset that is deeply set in among Canadian politicians, and it applies basically evenly across Liberals and Conservatives alike (the others are even worse). There has been a massive failure of imagination across not just our political class, but our society more generally. We have dropped the ball, and are now at the mercy of events.
Hopefully things stay contained to Ukraine. I suspect, all things considered, that they will. But one thing is clear: for the last generation, and especially the last decade or so, we needed more Cold War thinking, not less. Putin never moved on, and remembered the value of hard power, in the form of tanks, guns and helicopters. We didn't. That's why he has the advantage now. And he's trying to make full use of it.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: email@example.com
I'm glad that you keep doing articles that highlight how the west has repeartedly chosen bargain-basement democracy. 40 years after Thatcher/Reagan we are now coasting on fumes in most of our public institutions. Think the military is in bad shape? Try using the health care system for any kind of chronic illness.
You were, and are, correct; alas that in this case there is little solace in being so. The gradual yet nearly total infantilization of our populace in the West has yielded infantilized leaders who ignore the realities of history and focus on short term electoral success and long-term socio-political legacy. I sincerely hope I'm mistaken, but it may be that the only way we can effectively grow up and realize the cost of freedom is to have it being snatched directly from us by the bayonet of a rifle, by the business end of the gun. I still have family alive today that lived as children under Nazi occupation...they have not forgotten what a Hot War means. They remember. We need to finally heed their warnings and gird our loins for what is coming; for what Ukraine is facing right now. History is now.