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 later. 

Level 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 nothing.”

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.

Stay Strong
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 defense.

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.

Be Flexible
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.

Remember Monroe
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 China.

Washington 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.