Allied jets on the NATO flag. A RAND war games simulation suggested NATO forces would lose to Russia if hostilities broke out in the Balkans. Photo: iStock

The RAND Corporation with Pentagon support has carried out a war game simulation in which the United States loses to both Russia and China. The US and NATO are unable to stop an attack in the Balkans by the Russians, and the United States and its allies are unable to prevent the takeover of Taiwan by China.

These are the claims made by RAND. But is RAND right?

The RAND war game effort was led by David Ochmanek, a senior international and defense researcher at the RAND Corporation. From 2009 until 2014 he was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Development.

Ochmanek previously authored, with others, the 2015 study “America’s Security Deficit.”  The war game is an operationalized and slightly updated version of that document, and to understand the outcomes of the war game one needs to refer to the thinking underlying it found in the “Deficit” paper.   

Ochmanek told The Daily Mail: “We lose a lot of people. We lose a lot of equipment. We usually fail to achieve our objective of preventing aggression by the adversary.”

Fundamentally, the study claims that US international policy and the threat profiles faced by US leaders have reached an “inflection point” where five developments are now creating a strategic imbalance.

Destabilizing events

The destabilizing events center on (1) Russia’s forcible annexation of the Crimea, continued military aggression in Ukraine and threats to the Baltic States and elsewhere; (2) China’s continued military build-up; (3) the volatility of a nuclear-armed Korea (4) Iran’s pursuit of “revisionist goals” – whatever that means exactly – and (5) the advance of ISIS barbarism in Syria and Iraq, although right now it looks more like ISIS is being defeated in Syria.

There is a question why the RAND study conflates the importance of existential threats – Russia, China – with threats that fall more into a different category measured by the impact on US security.

The study claims for Europe, correctly, that the expansion of NATO has burdened the United States, and its allies when they care to be burdened, with how to defend the widened periphery of NATO. 

As any war game would show, given Russia’s military capability and its geographic proximity to any potential NATO battlefield, that NATO or allied intervention capable of stopping an attack is probably an impossibility in the short term because NATO’s main forces are far from the battlefield and it would take weeks, or even months, to mount a counter-attack.

In the early stages of a war, NATO forces would rapidly be overrun, its airfields would be damaged and its air defenses knocked out – all at least temporarily and only insofar as Russia was willing to go after those NATO assets far from the battlefield.  The short term on the ground situation might be far different than the RAND scenario.

This is nothing new. Books since the 1970s have projected similar outcomes. For example, there is Sir John Hackett’s book, a 1978 novel, The Third World War: August 1985.  It was followed in 1982 by Hackett’s The Third World War: The Untold Story.  Then there is John Clancy and Larry Bond’s book, Red Storm Rising. More recently is former deputy commander of NATO General Sir Richard Shirreff’s book 2017 War with Russia: An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command.

War games operate mainly in a short time range, leaving out the longer term response by the players. For the Russians to actually be successful, Russia’s leaders would have to be able to convince their European counterparts it would be to their advantage to make political deals with Russia as a preferable outcome rather than a struggle that could again devastate Europe. 

US on the outside?

The Russian deal-price would be for countries like Germany and France to end their participation in NATO and agree to significant political and economic arrangements with Russia. The US then would find itself on the outside of Europe and instead of American security leadership in Europe, Russia would dominate the region.

Of course, Russia has zero assurance any of this would happen, even if they knocked off a few Baltic states at the start of a conflict. The allies could just as well fight back and Russia would pay a price. Russian airfields, just like allied ones, could be hit, and Russian forces would be exposed to allied counter-attacks.

War games, of course, do not presume to assess the impact of political processes, but only analyze the military components of a clash on the battlefield.

No one knows how Russian military planners would play out a fight against NATO forces. Would they confine themselves to the Baltics, where they have superior leverage, hit Poland or other Eastern European states, or go for the jugular in Germany? 

And exactly what would happen to NATO airfields, whether in Eastern or Western Europe, including the UK and Italy? All of these uncertainties suggest that Russia is perhaps going to continue to focus on harassment and nibbling, as they have been doing in Ukraine, and also continue trying to activate and use overseas Russian populations – as in Ukraine but also in the Balkans – as levers to support political upheaval.

This could be reinforced by Russian forces or thinly disguised surrogates – “Little Green Men” – intervening when the chance seems good to grab some territory or exploit an opportunity to replace a pro-NATO government with a pro-Russian regime. 

The two examples of Georgia and Ukraine, including Crimea, suggests the current Russian strategy is likely to continue into the future. But it also suggests it won’t necessarily pay off for the Russians.

One needs to keep in mind that in Ukraine, Russian attempts have been thwarted to a degree, and the affair has dragged on for years, for example, the war in the Donbass started in March, 2014, and continues today, or for five years. 

Meanwhile, the Russians have suffered sanctions from Europe and the United States which has impacted Russian growth at home and the ability to meet critical obligations, including pensions, creating a political crisis at home for Vladimir Putin.

Defective hypothesis?

All of this means that the RAND hypothesis regarding Russia may be defective, as it implies that Russia’s leadership is ready – or at least getting ready – for overt and open aggression in Europe. 

In fact, the empirical evidence when measured in military terms is that Russia can’t sustain a European war and won’t take that sort of risk. Russia could get a completely irresponsible new leadership to replace Putin and his cohorts, either peacefully or by a coup d’etat, but that might not be acceptable to the Russian people.

Meanwhile, the main task is to push back on Putin’s aggressiveness around the periphery of Russia, so he understands the risks as clearly as possible.

In regard to China, the situation potentially is more fluid. RAND says China has adopted strategies for attacking the US, Japanese and other air bases, ports and US aircraft carriers as well as hitting American and allied information systems “such as sensors and communications nodes, including satellites, and logistics assets, including supply depots and naval replenishment ships.”

China no doubt hoped that the United States would handle Taiwan the same way the US dealt with Vietnam – when the Vietnam war became unpopular, cut South Vietnam loose, propose negotiations, even sign bogus agreements, and then stand by while South Vietnam was invaded and taken over by North Vietnam. 

Support for Taiwan

This is what happened when the Paris Peace Accords was signed in January 1973 and the US pulled out of South Vietnam. Likewise, it is what the Chinese hoped they had when the US and China restored ties with China, including recognition, in January, 1979. Part of the deal was for America to end diplomatic ties and de-recognize Taiwan. 

Congress was, however, less willing to abandon Taiwan and passed the Taiwan Relations Act in April, 1979, which has formed the backbone of America’s support for Taiwan, especially military equipment and technology, since then.

Despite many twists and turns, and the fact that Taiwan in the last decade invested heavily in China’s industry, especially in high tech businesses, the chance today for a political reconciliation is remote and China continues to threaten the island, recently stepping up military activity. 

Back in 1996, escalated Chinese military operations, known as the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis, could have led to an actual invasion or a missile attack on Taiwan, but US intervention using two aircraft carrier task forces persuaded China to back down. Would China try this again? It is unlikely the United States would stand by.

But there are more possible consequences. If there was a Chinese attack on Taiwan, would that lead to the collapse of China’s economy as the United States and others cut off trade and imposed various economic and political sanctions? 

We know from the Hainan Island incident in 2001 that China was in trouble as large American companies halted sales of Chinese merchandise, helping force China to be more reasonable in the return of America’s aircrew taken prisoner on Hainan Island.

Would a war scenario be limited to the defense of Taiwan itself only or would the United States for military reasons try and neutralize Chinese missile sites and the assembly locations of China’s military forces pressing on Taiwan? What would happen to China’s navy – it would likely be sunk.

The RAND scenario says China would “win.” But this hypothesis is not well supported empirically. No one knows if China can fight or win a modern battle. This is not 1950 where China tried to use human wave attacks against allied forces in Korea. Nor is it the entirely unopposed occupation by China of islands and reefs in the South China Sea – a mistake by the United States not to take action and push them out.

None of this means the United States can stand still and wait until an attack occurs, either in Europe, in the Balkans or Poland, or in Asia, in Taiwan or Japan, for example. A major part of relations in Europe and Asia is the ability of the United States and its allies to effectively deter any attack by an adversary.

RAND is right in pointing out there are deficits in US and allied forces and force structures that need correction and improvement, but it would be a mistake to think the deficits are fatal or can’t be overcome.

It would be misleading to think the United States and its allies would necessarily be defeated in war. In this sense, the RAND war game does more harm than good.

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