By David Galland, Partner, Casey Research
In late 2010, I was invited to a private breakfast meeting with an individual near the apex of the US military’s strategic planning pyramid. Specifically, the individual we were to breakfast with sits at the side of the long-serving head of the department in the Pentagon responsible for identifying and assessing potential threats to national security and devising long-term strategies to counter those threats.
The ground rules for the discussion—that certain topics were off limits—were set right up front. Yet, as we warmed up to each other over the course of our meal, the conversation went into directions even I couldn’t have anticipated.
In an earlier mention of this meeting in a Casey Daily Dispatch, I steered clear of much of what was discussed because frankly, it made me nervous. With the passage of time and upon reflection that it was up to my breakfast companion, who spends long days cloaked in secrecy, to know what is allowed in daylight, I have decided to share the entire story.
During our discussion, there were four key revelations, each a bit scarier than the last.
Four Key Revelations
Once we had bonded a bit, the military officer, dressed in his civvies for the meeting, began opening up. As I didn’t record the discussion, the dialogue that follows can only be an approximation. That said, I assure you it is accurate in all the important aspects.
“Which country or countries most concern you?” I asked, not sure if I would get an answer. “China?”
“Well, I’m not going to say too much, but it’s not China. Our analysis tells us the country is too fractured to be a threat. Too many different ethnic and religious groups and competing political factions. So no, it’s not China. Russia, on the other hand…” He left it at that, though Russia would come up again in our conversation on several occasions.
As breakfast was served, the conversation meandered here and there before he volunteered, “There are a couple of things I can discuss that we are working on, one of which won’t surprise you, and one that will.”
“The first is precision-guided weaponry.” Simply, the airplane and drone-launched weaponry that is deployed so frequently today, four years after our breakfast conversation, that it now barely rates a back-page mention.
“The second,” he continued,” will surprise you. It’s nuclear armaments.”
“Really? I can’t imagine the US would ever consider using nuclear weapons again. Seriously?”
“Yes, there could be instances when using nukes might be advisable,” he answered. “For example, no one would argue that dropping atomic bombs on Japan had been a bad thing.” (I, for one, could have made that argument, but in the interest of harmony didn’t.)
“Even so, I can’t imagine a scenario that would warrant using nukes,” I persisted. “Are there any other countries doing the same sort of research?”
“Absolutely. For example, the Russians would love to drop a bomb that wiped out the people of Chechnya but left the infrastructure intact.”
“So, neutron bombs?”
“Yeah, stuff like that,” he added before turning back to his coffee.
“Okay, well,” I continued, “you at least have to admit that, unlike last century when hundreds of millions of people died directly or indirectly in world wars, pogroms, and so forth—most related to governments—the human race has evolved to the point where death on that scale is a thing of the past. Right?”
I kid you not in the slightest, but at this question the handsome, friendly countenance I had been sitting across from morphed as if literally a mask had been lifted away and was replaced with the emotionless face of a Lord of War.
“That would be a very poor assumption,” he answered coldly before the mask went back on.
I recall a number of thoughts and emotions coursing through my brain at his reply, most prevalently relief that I had moved with my family to La Estancia de Cafayate in a remote corner of Argentina. We didn’t move there to escape war, but after this conversation, I added that to my short list of reasons why the move had been a good idea.
Recapping the conversation later, my associate and I concurred that Russia was in the crosshairs and that if push came to shove, the US was fully prepared to use the new nuclear weapons being worked on.
Four Years Later
As I write, four years after that conversation, it’s worth revisiting just what has transpired.
First, as mentioned, the use of precision-guided weaponry has now firmly entered the vernacular of US warmaking. Point of fact: there are now more pilots being trained to fly drones than airplanes. And the technology has reached the point where there is literally no corner on earth where a strategic hit couldn’t be made. Even more concerning, the political and legal framework that previously caused hesitation before striking against citizens of other countries (outside of an active war zone) has largely been erased. Today Pakistan, tomorrow the world?
Second, instead of winding back the US nuclear program—a firm plank in President Obama’s campaign platform—the Nobel Prize winner and his team have indeed been ramping up and modernizing the US nuclear arsenal. The following is an excerpt from a September 21, 2014 article in the New York Times, titled “U.S. Ramping Up Major Renewal in Nuclear Arms”…
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A sprawling new plant here in a former soybean field makes the mechanical guts of America’s atomic warheads. Bigger than the Pentagon, full of futuristic gear and thousands of workers, the plant, dedicated last month, modernizes the aging weapons that the United States can fire from missiles, bombers and submarines.
It is part of a nationwide wave of atomic revitalization that includes plans for a new generation of weapon carriers. A recent federal study put the collective price tag, over the next three decades, at up to a trillion dollars.
Third, the events unfolding in Ukraine, where the US was caught red-handed engineering the regime change that destabilized the country and forced Russia to act, show a clear intent to set the world against Putin’s Russia and in time, neutralize Russia as a strategic threat.
So the only revelation from my breakfast four years ago remaining to be confirmed is for the next big war to envelope the world.
Per the events in Ukraine, the foundations of that war have likely already been set. Before I get to that, however, a quick but relevant detour is required.
The Nature of Complex Systems
Last week the semiannual Owner’s & Guests event took place here at La Estancia de Cafayate. As part of the weeklong gathering, a conference was held featuring residents speaking on topics they are experts on.
Among those residents is a nuclear-energy engineer who spoke on the fragility of the US power grid, the most complex energy transmission system in the world.
He went into great detail about the “defense-in-depth” controls, backups, and overrides built into the system to ensure the grid won’t—in fact, can’t—fail. Yet periodically, it still does.
How? First and foremost, the engineer explained, there is a fundamental principle that holds that the more complex a system is, the more likely it is to fail. As a consequence, despite thousands of very bright people armed with massive budgets and a clear mandate to keep the transmission lines humming, there is essentially nothing they can do to actually prevent some unforeseen, and unforeseeable, event from taking the whole complex system down.
Case in point: in 2003 one of the largest power outages in history occurred. 508 large power generators were knocked out, leaving 55 million people in North America without power for upward of 24 hours. The cause? A software defect in an alarm system in an Ohio control center.
I mention this in the context of this article because, as complex as the US power grid is, it is nothing compared to the complexities involved with long-term military strategic planning. This complexity is the result of many factors, including:
- The challenges of identifying potential adversaries and threats many years, even a decade or more, into the future.
- New and evolving technologies. It is a truism that the military is always fighting the last war: by the time the military machine spins up to build and deploy a new technology, it is often already obsolete.
- The entrenched bureaucracies, headed by mere mortals with strong biases. Today’s friend is tomorrow’s enemy and vice versa.
- The unsteady influences of a political class always quick to react with policy shifts to the latest dire news or purported outrage.
- The media, a constant source of hysteria-making headlines masquerading as news. And let’s not overlook the media’s role as active agents of the entrenched bureaucratic interests. In one now largely forgotten case, Operation Mockingbird, the CIA actually infiltrated the major US media outlets, specifically to influence public opinion.
All you need to do to understand the bureaucratic agenda is to take a casual glance at the “news” about current events such as those transpiring in the Ukraine.
- And, most important, human nature. We humans are the ultimate complex system, prone to a literally infinite number of strong opinions, exaggerated fears, mental illnesses, passions, vices, self-destructive tendencies, and stupidity on a biblical scale.
The point is that the average person assumes the powers-that-be actually know what they are doing and would never lead us into disaster, but quoting my breakfast companion, that would be a very poor assumption.
Simply, while mass war on the level of the wholesale slaughter commonplace in the last century is unimaginable to most in the modern context, it is never more than the equivalent of a faulty alarm system away from occurring.
Those history buffs among you will confirm that up until about a week before World War I began, virtually no one in the public, the press, the political class, or even the military had any idea the shooting was about to start. And 99.9% of the people then living had no idea the war was about to begin until after the first shot was fired.
Back to the Present
It is a rare moment in one’s life when the bureaucratic curtain falls away long enough to reveal something approximating The Truth. In my opinion, that’s what I observed over breakfast four years ago. That, right or wrong, the proactive military strategy of the US had been turned toward Russia.
Knowing that and no more, one can only guess what actual measures have been planned and set into motion to defang the Russian bear.
Based on the evidence, however, the events in Ukraine appear to be a bold chess move on the bigger board… and to be fair, a pretty damn effective move at that. The problem for the US and its allies is that on the other side of the table is one Vladimir Putin, self-made man, black-belt judo master, and former KGB spy master.
And that’s just scratching the surface of this complicated and determined individual. One thing is for sure: if you had to pick your adversary in a global geopolitical contest, you’d probably pick him dead last.
Which brings me to a quick mention of The Colder War, Marin’s book, which was released yesterday.
I mentioned earlier that the book had sucked me in and kept me in pretty much straight through until I finished. One reason is that while you can tell Marin has a great deal of respect for Putin’s capabilities and strategic thinking, he doesn’t shy away from revealing the judo master’s dark side. As you will read (and find quoting to your friends, as I have), it is a very dark side.
But the story is so much bigger than that, and Marin does a very good job of explaining the increasingly hostile competition between the US and Russia and the seismic economic consequences that will affect us all as the “Colder War” heats up.
Before signing off for now, I want to add that it is not Marin’s contention that the Colder War will devolve into an actual shooting war. In my view, however, due to the complexities discussed above, you can’t dismiss a military confrontation, even one involving nukes. Every complex system ultimately fails, and the more the US pushes in on Putin’s Russia, the more likely such a failure is to occur.
I recommend Marin’s book, The Colder War; here is the link.
We’ll leave the lights on down here in Cafayate.
Casey Research partner David Galland lives in La Estancia de Cafayate (www.LaEst.com).
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