2018 11 – US Military Planning (book review)

Review of Andrei Martyanov

‘Losing Military Supremacy: the myopia of American strategic planning’.[i]

Reviewed by Christopher Winch

Andrei Martyanov has a background of service in the Soviet armed forces. He moved to the United States where he works in commercial aerospace. He writes on military, mainly naval affairs.

What was the Cold War really about?

This is a prominent American international relations scholar quoted by Andrei Martyanov:

“I would say, and I have said many times before, that if the czars still reigned in Russia, that if Lenin had died of the measles at an early age, that if Stalin had never been heard of, but the power of the Soviet Union was exactly what it is today, the problem of Russia would be for us by and large what it is today. If the Russian armies stood exactly where they stand today, and if Russian technological development were what it is today, we would by and large be confronted with the same problems that confront us today.”

Hans Morgenthau  at the US Naval War College in 1957, quoted at p.98-99.

In one sense this is highly realistic. The reality of relations between great powers are a constant, no matter who is actually in power. But this quotation takes on a different significance if one of those great powers cannot tolerate the fact that there is another power which places limits on the exercise of its own will and which can prevent it from ordering the world as it pleases. Such is the case with the United States, which wishes to order the world as it pleases, and Russia, which wishes to defend itself and its vital interests.

Russia is a major problem for the US because it is an immoveable obstacle. Furthermore, as a great land power it has the potential to disrupt and bypass the ability of the US to control the seas. Control of the seas via eleven Carrier Groups gives the US the ability to intimidate weak powers and, more importantly, to choke international trade at such points as the Red Sea, the eastern Atlantic near Gibraltar, the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea. Suppose these carrier groups are vulnerable to missile attack. Suppose also that east-west trade can simply be re-routed via the Eurasian land mass. Both these possibilities negate the power of the US navy to a very large extent.

Eurasia is Harford Mackinder’s World Island and Russia is the major part of it. According to Mackinder’s geopolitical doctrine, control of the World Island is the key to world domination. This is partly the source of Russia’s power and also of its vulnerability. It has limited access to the sea but is a barrier to the aspirations of other powers. It has been repeatedly invaded over the centuries, including twice between 1812 and 1941. Martyanov stresses that Russia and its people know what war is from painful first-hand experience of devastation of the motherland by the enemy. It is determined that this shall not happen again. By contrast, the US has never been invaded or humiliated on its home ground. Its experience of war is largely that of intervening abroad and invading or intimidating powers much weaker than itself. The American war machine is designed to do this rather than defend the homeland and to do so in a way that profits American industry, what Eisenhower called the ‘military-industrial complex’. Russia and the US have contrasting military priorities and have developed completely different ways of designing and commissioning military hardware. Relations between the two countries are now probably worse than at any time during the Cold War.

Stalin is the hero of Martyanov’s book. The Soviet Union under his leadership developed the industrial and educational base that ensured that invasion by a hostile power would be crushed. He is at pains to emphasise, however, that the Soviet Union’s power did not just rest on brute industrial muscle. The Soviet Union became a technological force to be reckoned with and they could not have accomplished this without an excellent education system. Furthermore, in order to design, build and operate technologically advanced equipment you need a highly educated populace and armed forces. The story of the Soviet Union’s advances in education is probably the great untold story (in the West at least) of that country and an important legacy (albeit partly compromised) to the Russian Federation.

Martyanov emphasises that the Russian people are well aware of Stalin’s and the Communist party’s role in defending the country. Dissidents like Solzhenitsyn, by contrast are regarded dimly. They are seen as out of touch with later generations, disloyal to Russia and inaccurate in relation to Soviet history. Martyanov claims that Solzhenitsyn borrowed and distorted the data and views of Varlam Shalamov, another GULAG resident, exaggerating the number of inmates, failing to compare the Soviet penal system to that of other countries and ignoring the fact that much of the horror of residency in the GULAG depended on the fact that many criminals were incarcerated there. Even conservative Russian orthodox commentators have limited time for Solzhenitsyn:

“The West hates Stalin namely (I think this should be ‘mainly’ – CW) for restoration of the territory of the historic Russian state, and for Yalta and for Potsdam. These are the outcomes which do not allow them to calm down. You know, I am no Stalinist and I clearly understand that all the nostalgia for Stalin has its roots in a non-stop trampling of our history, making  a mockery of the lives of our fathers. It is useless trying to prove to the West that Ivan Grozny (The Terrible) in 30 years of his reign killed 10 times fewer people than Catherine De’ Medici killed during the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. We are going to be counted as barbarians not matter what, while the West will remain good!”

Natalya Narochnitskaya a contemporary Russian Orthodox conservative, quoted by Martyanov, p.107.

Stalin and his successors built up and maintained Russian military strength and technological prowess and it did not completely disappear during the bleak and humiliating Yeltsin years. The best way to understand it is to grasp the following principles. First, the defence of the homeland is an absolute priority and all efforts and all technology must be put in that service. Second, world domination is not the concern of Russia, its vital interests are. Third, Russia will not compete with the naval power of the US and its allies but will seek to neutralise it. Fourth, it will attempt to make itself independent of the West through Eurasian alliances, with China in particular, and will seek, with China, to minimise the importance of those trade routes which the US seeks to dominate.

The most striking, although by no means the only, feature of this approach is Russian expertise in rocketry, missiles, radar and electronic warfare. Martyanov argues that Russian advances in these areas mean that the US mainland is now vulnerable to precision strikes from long range cruise missiles should the Americans try to attach Russia.  Their anti-ballistic missile capacity has been neutralised through the Sarmat 2 and Avangard technologies and hypersonic missile technology, together with cruise missiles renders US naval forces highly vulnerable and effectively useless except to intimidate weak powers near a coastline. Electronic warfare limits the capacities of US forces. The small Russian force invited to Syria to prevent that country being overrun by terrorists is backed up by an ‘800-pound gorilla’ in the form of long-range cruise missiles which can be launched from deep inside Russia and which can imperil US naval forces in the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. The integrity of Syria is vital to Russian defence as, should it fall, the way is open for US proxies to attack the southern boundaries of the Russian Federation.

The US is encumbered with very high tech but dysfunctional weapons systems which are not fit for purpose, as the Russians have developed effective means of neutralising and rendering them vulnerable. Much as the US would dearly love to attack Russia, its leaders know that this is not possible because of the punishment that would immediately follow. The world should be thankful that there is at least one power in the world that will not allow the US to ride roughshod over them. It is also high time that the EU started to think seriously about our common trade and security interests with Russia and to co-operate with them instead of acting as a catspaw for the US. Martyanov’s book serves as a valuable antidote to the endless anti-Russian propaganda to which even Corbyn and McDonnell sometimes succumb.


[i] Atlanta GA, Clarity Press, 2018.