The Landing Zone | 9.17.12
By Alan W. Dowd
The 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile
Crisis is upon us. We know the story well: The Soviets tried to plant nuclear
missiles in Cuba to protect their client and to tip the Cold War balance of
terror. Washington caught Moscow red-handed. President Kennedy and Premier
Khrushchev went “eyeball to eyeball” for two tense weeks. And then Khrushchev
blinked. The lessons of those 13 days in October are still relevant half-a-century
with the People
In dealing with today’s missile threats in North Korea and Iran, Washington must
level with the American people. That’s what Kennedy did in the midst of our
first missile crisis, describing the extent of Soviet capability and duplicity,
warning the nation of the “difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set
out,” and reminding the nation that “the greatest danger of all would be to do
Iran is developing nuclear
weapons and delivery systems for those weapons. U.S. intelligence agencies have
tracked the shipment of intermediate range missiles from North Korea to Iran, giving Iran the ability to strike American
allies and bases in Europe. Worse, the Defense Department estimates Iran could have an ICBM capable of
reaching the United States by
2015. As Lt. Gen. Henry Obering warned during his tenure as director of the
Missile Defense Agency (MDA), “We should not assume that we have full
understanding of ballistic missile activities around the world. We have been
surprised in the past.”
North Korea was one of those
unwelcome surprises, stunning the world with long-range missile tests in the
1990s and nuclear tests in the 2000s. Since 2009, North Korea has detonated a
nuclear weapon, test-fired long-range missiles and begun developing a road-mobile
ICBM, which would allow the Kim Dynasty to hide its missile arsenal.
To defuse today’s missile threats, straight talk must be buttressed by concrete
actions and a credible threat of force. Kennedy’s words were backed by a deadly-serious display of military
might. At the height of the crisis, fully one-eighth of the Air Force
was airborne, 60 warships were dispatched to the waters around Cuba and 90
nuclear-armed B-52s flew round-the-clock orbits over the Atlantic.
But today, amid massive
cuts in military spending, America’s enemies might start to doubt America’s resolve.
After all, if Congress fails
to reach a deficit-reduction deal by the end of this year, the military faces $500 billion in automatic
spending cuts. These cuts would come in addition to the $487 billion the
Pentagon has already carved from its budget over the next 10 years.
Defense News reports that the
Navy is cutting the number of surface combatants from 85
ships to 78 and stretching the “build time” of new aircraft carriers from
five to seven years. The Navy was forced to seek a special congressional waiver to deploy just 10 carriers (rather than the
legally-mandated 11) while other flattops are built, retired or refurbished.
Pressed by budget-cutters, the Air Force has announced plans to cuts 286
planes. The active-duty Army will be cut from 570,000 soldiers to 490,000; the
Marines from 202,000 to 182,000. A DOD
reporton 2013 weapons-acquisition plans reveals
spending cuts in combat drones, F-35 fighter-bombers, F/A-18 fighter-bombers,
UH-60 helicopters, KC-46 refuelers, M-1 tank upgrades, carriers and submarines. And then there are the cuts to missile
The Obama administration’s
initial budget cut
overall missile-defense spending by 16 percent and slashed ground-based
missile defenses by 35 percent. Although the administration has increased
investment in sea-based missile defenses, it cut the number of ground-based
interceptors in the U.S. from 44 to 30 and reversedNATO-endorsed plans to
deploy permanent ground-based interceptors in Poland and support radars in the
Czech Republic. The 2013 budget slashes another $810
million from the MDA.
As Kennedy illustrated by quietly removing Jupiter missiles from Turkey in
exchange for Khrushchev’s promise to remove his missiles from Cuba, face-saving
diplomacy can save lives.
It’s not hard to imagine future crises—especially those involving near-peer
competitors like Russia and China—when the most prudent course will require
Washington to resist the temptation to take a victory lap or spike the football.
Consider the 2001 Hainan incident, when a Chinese warplane literally
intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance plane flying in international airspace.
Beijing released the crew of the crippled U.S. plane—and the crisis was
defused—only after Washington issued a tortuous statement that Beijing accepted
as an apology and Washington refused to call an apology.
Kennedy invokedthe Monroe Doctrine in responding to Soviet deployments in Cuba, and the Monroe
Doctrine remains an important guide for U.S. foreign policy.
China is making oil-sector investments in
Costa Rica and Ecuador, providing massive loans to Brazil and Venezuela, upgrading
infrastructure in Colombia and Argentina, and increasing military contacts
across the region. U.S. Southern Command reports that Beijing has “approached
every country in our area of responsibility” and has provided military
exchanges, aid or training to Ecuador, Jamaica, Bolivia, Cuba, Chile and
Venezuela. A study published in Joint
Forces Quarterly reports that most Latin American nations, including Mexico,
“send officers to professional military education courses in the PRC.” Beijing
has begun to sell “sophisticated hardware…such as radars and K-8 and MA-60
aircraft” to Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia. And Argentinarecently signed a “bilateral strategic association in defense cooperation” with
should quietly but firmly let Beijing know that while the United States
welcomes China’s efforts to trade in the Americas, the American people cannot
accept Chinese control over territories or facilities in the Americas—and would
look unfavorably upon the sale of Chinese arms or the basing of Chinese
military assets in the Americas. What was
true in the 19th century, and during the Missile Crisis, and throughout the
20th century, must remain true in the 21st: There is room for only one great
power in this hemisphere.
The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.