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The Shadow of the Missile
They can hurt us, but we can't hurt them.
The rapid and precise dismantlement of Ukraine’s infrastructure by Russian missiles and drones over the past few weeks may have come as a surprise to those who hadn’t been paying attention. But the implications of the use of this military technology go way beyond the current war, to the future strategic relationship between Russia and Europe, and indeed between Russia and the West generally.
Almost exactly a hundred years ago, a few military theorists started sifting through the political and strategic debris of the First World War, looking for ways of avoiding another such terrible slaughter in the inevitable next round, through the use of new technologies. Far from its popular image as a mindless slugging match in the mud, the First World War was actually a period of extremely rapid technological development, and nowhere more so than in the air. In 1909, Louis Blériot had (barely) crossed the English Channel in a small aeroplane. A decade later, Alcock and Brown crossed the Atlantic in a converted WW1 bomber.
The aeroplane seemed to have many advantages. Largely invulnerable to ground fire, capable of protecting itself against opposing aircraft, it could “leap over” (as it was termed) the trench lines below, and, by striking the nerve-centre of the enemy’s war effort, bring an end to the fighting in a few days. It was an intoxicating vision, the more so because it had never really been tried at scale, and so could not be invalidated by experience. Indeed, such limited experience as there had been in the recent War was regarded as positive: sporadic bombardments of targets in Britain had created panic and destruction. More would obviously be better, and more effective.
Governments reacted in different ways to these ideas. The British were especially enthusiastic: anything to avoid having to conscript and deploy huge armies on the Continent again. The British Empire had mobilised nearly nine million men, and a third of them had been killed or wounded. Paying such a price again was unimaginable, and airpower seemed to offer a quick, cheap and effective alternative. Thus, the British would strike a deadly blow at the (probably) German enemy’s morale and industrial production from the air, bringing about social and economic collapse in a few days or possibly weeks. These apocalyptic expectations, implying a level of physical destruction we now associate with nuclear weapons, were massively influential in both politics and popular culture in the 1930s.
It didn’t work out quite like that, and the effectiveness or otherwise of British (and later American) strategic bombing remains a highly controversial subject (see Richard Overy’s The Bombing War for the best recent survey). But the idea of striking a knockout blow from the air, either by killing and terrifying the population, or by destroying the infrastructure, has continued to haunt the minds of strategic planners ever since. It led, inevitably, to the development of nuclear weapons and to the whole intellectual edifice of deterrence. However, actual attempts to use airpower to win wars by itself (most notably in Kosovo in 1999) had results which were at best equivocal.
The basic problem in any situation where you can’t see the target directly is, of course accuracy, which is why artillerymen and airmen have spent so much effort trying to improve it. Accuracy, indeed, turned out to be the weakness in British war planning for an air war in the 1930s. Even knowing where you were was a challenge, and bombing a target accurately was largely a matter of luck. The first scientific study of Royal Air Force targeting, in 1941, showed that on average, only one in five of the aircraft sent on a mission actually reached a point within five miles of the assigned target. By the end of the War the position had improved somewhat, but aerial bombing remained a clumsy and inefficient weapon, requiring massive, and by definition largely wasted, efforts to hit a precise target. With increased accuracy comes smaller explosive payloads to achieve the same result (this is true even for nuclear warheads), and fewer systems.
In addition, aircraft were vulnerable to interceptors and ground fire, and it was hardly surprising that thoughts began to turn to rockets, against which there was then no defence at all. The German A4/V2 rocket was certainly impossible to intercept, but was only accurate to the nearest town. With nuclear weapons taking over strategic roles, the West largely lost interest in conventional rockets as offensive weapons, except on the battlefield. The Soviet Union (and later Russia) did not. From the family of missiles known in the West as “Scuds," through the OTR-21 “Tochka” to the Iskander and its air-launched variant the Kinzhal, the Soviets and now the Russians have doggedly pursued longer range and greater accuracy with conventional ballistic missiles.
The West has taken a different approach, seeking to obtain air superiority (if not supremacy) over the battlefield, so enabling the work of destruction from the air to be done by manned aircraft, and ground forces to operate without having to worry about air attack. In turn, this approach derives ultimately from the experience of World War II on the Western Front, where German air superiority was decisive at the beginning, just as Allied air superiority was decisive in the last year. The West has been able to rapidly gain, and count on, air superiority in all its conflicts since the time of the 1991 Gulf War, and its planning, equipment and force structures are essentially predicated on this situation enduring for ever. The problem arises, obviously, if a potential opponent decides not to contest air superiority with aircraft, but in some other way, and does so successfully.
This is an example of a general military problem: that very few military technologies and platforms are in themselves decisive, it depends what the opposition is, and what the objective is. The best analogy is with the children's game of Scissors, Stone, Paper, found al over the world. Scissors cut paper, but are blunted by stone, paper wraps stone. The West has a number of very sophisticated and very expensive air superiority aircraft (the Typhoon, the Rafale, the F-35) whose raison d’être is to contest air superiority with sophisticated aircraft from other countries. But the Russians have a different tradition, as they are showing in Ukraine, and seek less air superiority as such, than denial of the effective use of the air to a potential enemy. In such a situation, highly sophisticated fighter aircraft have no obvious targets, but are themselves targets for much cheaper and less sophisticated missiles.
We are not dealing here with a new technology to which a technological solution is required, but with a different tradition of thinking about conflict itself. Russia has always been a land power, obliged to defend huge territories in many different climactic zones. It has always practised warfare on an industrial scale, has privileged artillery as an arm, has seen airpower largely as an adjunct to ground forces, has more recently invested massively in layered air defence, and has retained a large and powerful armaments industry, geared for mass production, as well as large stocks of ammunition, and obsolete, but still usable, equipment. The West has effectively done none of these things: in general, western countries now have limited numbers of light forces, primarily suited for operations in the Global South under conditions of complete air superiority, and with very small stocks of munitions. Absolute numbers of equipments have reduced sharply, as costs have increased geometrically. Stone, meet paper.
The most immediate and obvious consequence of this disequilibrium is that NATO as a whole would be militarily inferior to Russia in any substantial conflict, in the areas that count. Remedying this would be theoretically possible with perhaps a decade of immense, collective and fantastically expensive effort, but, as I’ve discussed before, that hardly seems likely. All this has been obvious for a while, and it’s that only surprising that people are surprised. But here, I am interested less in the purely military technology side of the problem (where I don’t claim to be an expert) and much more in the political consequences.
At the highest level, as I’ve pointed out several times, it’s hard to see what the point of NATO now is. Confronted for the first and only time in its history with the kind of crisis for which it had been designed, NATO took effectively no direct action at all, and is paradoxically substantially weaker as a military alliance now than it was a year ago, because it has given so much equipment away. This is generally recognised, but the longer-term political consequences have yet to be thought through. In particular, it’s not clear what the continued utility of an alliance with the United States is, when that country cannot now substantially influence the outcome of a future war in Europe.
Here, I want to focus on a somewhat narrower point. For much of the 1930s, European populations lived under what has been called the “Shadow of the Bomber”: the belief that manned aircraft with the weapons of the time could reduce entire cities to rubble in hours. The Luftwaffe’s attack on Guernica in 1937 appeared to validate these fears, which were held at all levels of society, and which substantially influenced the security policies of the French and British governments in those years. There was believed to be no defence against such an attack, which would come without warning and devastate capital cities in an afternoon. The fact that these fears were greatly exaggerated doesn’t mean that they were any less powerful at the time: western European governments generally expected to lose control of the streets after a few hours of bombardment, facing widespread panic, violent unrest and even revolution (which explains, for example, why the British built a complete underground government apparatus beneath Whitehall).
Western countries have not faced the real possibility of air attack since the Cold War, when the threat was nuclear, and the useful precautions that could actually be taken were very limited. But the longer-term strategic message of the Ukrainian missile attacks by Russia is two-fold. First, We can do it to You as well, but You can’t do it to Us. Second, We can hit very precise targets in Your countries. Let’s unpack each of those.
The current version of the Iskander missile has a claimed range of 500 km: not enough to hit most of Western Europe, but perhaps able to hit Berlin from Kaliningrad. The Russians are working on a replacement for Iskander, which, one assumes, will have a longer range. The airborne version of Iskander (the Kinzahl) on the other hand, has a claimed range of 1-2000 km, depending on the aircraft it is launched from. These missiles result from investments in technologies which the West has neglected, and, although there are rumours of hypersonic development programmes under way, it will be a very long time indeed, before anything much emerges. In any event, we can assume that the Russians, with their technology base already established, will continue to look for longer range still. They will also seek greater accuracy. The accuracy of missiles is measured by what is called the Circular Error Probable, or CEP, which is defined as a circle within which 50% of the missiles are expected to land. For the Iskander, that is claimed to be about 5 metres, ie half of them will land within a circle with a radius of 5 metres. The accuracy of the Kinzhal is claimed to be better, but this is disputed. Improved accuracy means you need to launch fewer missiles to be sure of hitting the target, and each missile can be smaller with a smaller warhead.
In any event, leaving the detail to military technology geeks, we can reasonably say that Russia already fields accurate missiles which can threaten targets in Europe, and is likely to go on improving them. NATO has no real defence against these weapons, especially if fired in large numbers, and no way of retaliating in the same fashion. Classically, the West has preferred attacks by manned aircraft, but, against the most powerful air defence system in the world, the costs of such actions are likely to be mind-numbing, not least because most of the launchers are mobile, and thus hard to find. In many ways, the argument is one of economics. Suppose for the sake of argument, that you have one hundred aircraft, and that each aircraft manages on average to destroy two Iskander missile launchers before being shot down, or destroyed on the ground when its air base is attacked. Suppose also that it takes ten anti-aircraft missiles to bring down each aircraft. So your enemy needs to produce a thousand anti-aircraft missiles, and two hundred tactical missiles, to restore the situation. You have to construct a hundred aircraft and train a hundred new pilots. Missiles can be constructed in a year or two: replacing those aircraft and pilots could take a decade, and in the meantime you don’t have an air force. (The costs, of course, are not remotely comparable.) You can play with the exact numbers as much as you like, but there’s no way out of this: you can’t play soccer if your opponent is playing rugby, and still expect to win.
Now notice that this has very little to do with simple differences between nations as regards GDP, size of armed forces, size of defence budgets, and other crude comparisons beloved of realist strategists. It’s a question of having the appropriate capabilities for the job you need to do, and also being able to make effective use of them. Thus, in 1914 the British Navy was by far the mightiest in the world, but it could not directly influence the battles on the Western front which would decide the War. Mass volunteer allies and then conscription had to be introduced, and that took years. Likewise, a war later, the Germans could never have won the Battle of Britain no matter how powerful the Luftwaffe was, partly because of Radar, but mostly because the British had strategic depth, and could withdraw to airfields out of the range of German aircraft, whilst those aircraft were themselves operating at extreme range, and could not spend a long time over the target. Japan in August 1945 still had an air force. What it did not have was petrol. And so on: there are some things which are just impossible, and history is full of cases of the Scissors, Stone, Paper interactions. It doesn’t matter how many Carrier Battle Groups the US has: they will be effectively useless in preventing the Russians targeting missiles on Western Europe. What we are dealing with here is a type of Asymmetric Warfare, with the difference that such tactics are normally used by the weak against the strong, but here by the strong against the weak.
Nor is there an effective riposte at the moment. NATO has no conventional weapons capable of travelling between 500-1000 kilometres to destroy targets in Moscow and St Petersburg with comparable accuracy. Using manned aircraft would be an expensive way of disbanding your air force. The sea-launched Tomahawk missile could probably be launched against St Petersburg, but not against Moscow, which is too far inland. In any case, the missiles are subsonic and relatively easy to defend against. Correcting this situation would take years, perhaps, decades, of development and production of new missiles, which would have to be manufactured and deployed in large quantities for some kind of deterrence to be established. Large numbers of well-trained operators would have to be recruited and deployed as well . And that’s only half of it.
Because there is no effective defence at the moment either. So in parallel there would have to be massive investment in layered air defence systems, covering not just government and military targets, but almost everything that is essential to the functioning of a country. And that’s a lot.
One of the (quite unnecessary) surprises of the current Russian missile campaign has been the devastating effect of attacks on electrical distribution systems. Experts are already saying that the Ukrainian banking system is going down, and that it will take the economy with it. In our just-in-time, highly complex, largely-outsourced, profit-driven economies, there is very little redundancy or room for error, and many choke-points, where ordinary life could be brought to halt, for a while at least. Thus, should they choose to do so, the Russians can attack very precise targets in Europe, without the Europeans being able to defend or respond to any useful degree.
What will the political consequences of this vulnerability be in the West? The first will obviously be denial: especially after the fortunes lavished on the war, and the damage to western economies, it will be unthinkable for Europe to publicly accept that it is vulnerable, and that neither it or its US ally can do much about that vulnerability. The problem is that, if there is going to be an attempt to massively increase the defence budgets of some European countries, then a rationale of some sort will have to be offered for that increase. Few western publics will support the idea of a war against Russia to eject their forces from Ukraine. But even if the Russians decide to garrison Odessa, those troops will still be 500 km from Bucharest, and twice that from Munich. It’s not like the Cold War, when Soviet forces were literally just across the border. So it’s virtually certain that Russian missiles will be used as an argument for increased defence preparations, just as Soviet SS-20 missiles were in the 1980s.
The second will be attempts to put massive amounts of money into building new anti-missile defences in Europe. There are obviously a whole range of problems here: I’ll just mention a couple. First, there will not be a common “threat.” Russian missiles, even air-launched, will not be able to reach all parts of the NATO area. (The Zircon missile has been successfully launched from ships and, apparently, submarines, but then such platforms are themselves inherently much more vulnerable to attack.) Thus, enthusiasm will be somewhat less in, say, Portugal and Iceland than in Rumania. Second, even if the money is available, the involvement of so many countries and so many defence industries guarantees that it will be a decade, at least, before anything much is produced, let alone deployed. After twenty years of effort, NATO’s own missile defence initiative, aimed mainly at small numbers of ICBMs from Iran or North Korea, has yet to achieve very much. Third, it is not obvious that there even is a defence against hypersonic missiles, with existing or foreseeable technologies. In any case, with such a large number of potential targets, the job of the defender, who has to defend everywhere, is much harder than that of the attacker, who can attack anywhere.
Now these are not super-weapons, nor is Russian technology inherently superior. It’s just that the Russians have opted to continue development of the technologies most useful for high-intensity land/air conflict in Europe, and the West has decided to optimise for wars in the Global South. Geography as destiny also strikes again. You can’t complain if you turn up to a cricket match carrying a baseball bat, and can’t play. Or if you prefer, scissors can’t cut stone. On reflection, though, it might have been wiser not to pursue a policy of confrontation with Russia for so long without simultaneously maintaining a decent military capability in Europe.
The third consequence, with luck, may be a calming down, and a recognition that the current European, strategy for dealing with Russia—economic dependence, bellicose behaviour and lectures from a position of moral superiority—isn’t working, and isn’t going to. The problem—which requires more space than I can give it here—is how to transition away from a Europe which confidently issues instructions to the rest of the world, to a Europe which finds itself living uncomfortably close to a major military power which can inflict damage on them, that they can’t protect against and can’t retaliate against. The fact that Russia’s armed forces, including its nuclear forces, are large and powerful, hasn’t actually penetrated the collective political mind even now, and may not do so even after the war is over. (Expect stories in the media about how Russia’s forces are “exhausted” and will take decades to recover from the fighting.) But it’s a bit harder to ignore a missile that can take out Buckingham Palace or the Bundestag in Berlin accurately.
The best weapons, of course, are the ones you don’t have to use. Developments in Russian missile technology have given them a capability to intimidate western countries already, should they choose to use it, and that is very likely to increase. If you lift your eyes a moment from the lethal video-game antics in Ukraine that obsess the punditing classes, it’s obvious that Ukraine is, in fact, only stage one. After that, the plan is for the creation of a de facto demobilised area on the frontiers, made up of states which may theoretically still be members of NATO, but will have minimal armed forces, no foreign troops stationed, and a policy of effective neutrality. This doesn’t need to be in a treaty, and indeed such a treaty would not now be worthwhile for the Russians. And it’s no good some of these small states yelling for help from the NATO cavalry if they get bullied: there is no cavalry.
The really interesting question is whether the political, systems of the West can learn to live with this situation. At a minimum it is going to fragilise NATO and the EU further, simply because populations will quickly tire of a policy of continual confrontation with a larger power, but in different ways and over different timescales. So long as the theatre of the continuing conflict in Ukraine can be presented in a morally satisfying way, it may be possible to keep public support, at least for a while. But five years in the future? Ten years? That, however, will need an essay of its own.