The Ploughshares Monitor September 2001 Volume 22 Issue 3
Paul Rogers is Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University in the United Kingdom. This article is an excerpt from his book, Losing Control: Global Security in the Twenty-first Century.
The Cold War was immensely wasteful of human and material resources, especially when compared with the problems of poverty and underdevelopment that persisted for the whole period. It was also a period that saw the development of a remarkable range of military technologies, many of them now proliferating across the world – a Cold War legacy that is likely to have a profound impact on the effects of conflict.
For 45 years, the West had one primary security concern, the confrontation with the Soviet bloc. It was straightforward, easy to understand, and very simple – “them versus us.” Now, the world is a much more uncertain place, with diverse threats to western well-being, so that the function of the western military is one of “keeping the violent peace,” being able to project military force anywhere in the world where western interests are affected.
A near classic example of this was the response to the sudden and unexpected threat to oil supplies that started with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and ended when the Iraqi forces were defeated and forced out of Kuwait a few months later in Operation Desert Storm. In the process, there was one particular event that featured in the war but did not even get into the public domain for several years. It concerns an operation by a little-known US Air Force unit deploying new missiles known colloquially as the “Secret Squirrels” after a cartoon character.
Operation Desert Storm commenced on the evening of 16 January 1991, with sustained air attacks on targets in many parts of Iraq. In western Europe, the early indications of the attack became apparent very late in the evening as CNN and other TV networks interrupted programs to bring the first news of the air raids. According to all available public sources, the air raids on Iraq were all launched from bases in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other western Gulf states, and from aircraft carriers and missile ships in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.
This was not quite true. More than 15 hours before the raids on Baghdad commenced, a flight of seven B-52G long-range bombers took off from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana on what was to become the longest air raid in history. Over the course of a day and a half, the planes flew out over the eastern United States, over the north Atlantic, southern Europe, the Mediterranean, and Egypt, and into air space over western Saudi Arabia. At no time did they cross into Iraqi air space. Instead, they launched a total of 35 air-launched cruise missiles at eight targets in Iraq, including power plants at Mosul in the north, and a telephone exchange at Basra in the south. Having completed their task, the planes turned round and flew back to the United States. The entire operation involved a 35-hour, 14,000-mile flight supported by multiple air-to-air refuellings involving tanker aircraft operating out of air bases in Spain and the Azores.1
There were three remarkable features to this air raid. The first was the length (the first truly global demonstration of air power in time of war), the second was the weapons used to carry it out. Unlike the Tomahawk cruise missile used by the US Navy throughout the Gulf War, the US Air Force’s air-launched cruise missile had originally been deployed only in a nuclear-armed form, yet here it was being used to deliver a high-explosive warhead. Third, the raid was entirely experimental – the same targets could have been attacked with cruise missiles launched from ships close to Iraq.
There was no immediate military requirement to stage the hugely expensive operation from bases in the United States, except, of course, to demonstrate the capacity of the US Air Force to project military power on a global scale. While this stemmed partly from a rivalry with the US Navy and its carrier-based air power, it also arose out of the experience of the air force in the previous decade. It is a story worth recounting, not least because of what it tells us about the way in which military thinking is adapting to the post-Cold War world.
The process starts in the early 1970s, nearly 20 years before the Gulf War, with a series of developments in military technology. The most significant of these concerned progress made in miniaturised power plants and guidance systems. Over a number of years in the early 1970s, small, high performance turbofan jet engines were developed by the Williams Company in the US. These weighed only 145 pounds, yet were able to power small pilot-less aircraft – cruise missiles – ten times that weight. So efficient were these engines that they could use on-board fuel to propel missiles armed with nuclear warheads for more than a thousand miles.
Over the same period, using newly developed computer technology combined with satellite-generated maps and accurate terrain-measuring radar, guidance specialists developed systems that could guide these new cruise missiles throughout their flight, enabling them to land within fifty feet of their intended targets.
By the late 1970s, substantial contracts had been let for a new class of cruise missiles for use by the US Air Force and the US Navy. They were all broadly similar in form, 20 feet long, and with stubby eight-foot wings. The US Navy bought thousands of the missiles, naming them the Tomahawk Sea-Launched Cruise Missile or SLCM. Some were nuclear-armed but most were fitted with conventional high-explosive warheads intended for use either against ships or against targets on land. Hundreds of these land attack missiles were fired during the Gulf War.
The US Air Force restricted itself to nuclear-armed cruise missiles, but they were produced in two rather different forms. The best known, at least in Europe, were the ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) produced by General Dynamics. Over 500 were built and they formed a substantial part of the nuclear re-arming of the United States forces in western Europe in the early 1980s, leading to a wave of anti-nuclear protests before eventually being withdrawn after the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty.
A much lesser known version was the air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) produced by Boeing and built in very large numbers, also in the 1980s. The idea was to be able to launch the ALCM from a strategic bomber flying outside the heavily defended air space of the Soviet Union. The missile would then fly at a very low level towards its target, making detection by radar very difficult. The missile carried a thermonuclear warhead with a destructive force of 200 kilotons, about 15 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. Such was the momentum of the nuclear arms race in the early 1980s that the Reagan administration ordered 1,700 of these missiles. Deployment started in December 1982 and each B-52 could carry up to 20 missiles, six under each wing and another eight in an internal bomb bay.
By the late 1980s it was already becoming apparent to the more far-sighted planners in the US Air Force that the Cold War was starting to wind down and that a new era was unfolding in which there might be larger numbers of small-scale conflicts. Thousands of nuclear-armed missiles and bombers were not necessarily the most appropriate weapons for such a disorderly world, and there might therefore be a renewed demand for long-range conventional bombing. This created an immediate worry – the risk of aircrew being shot down and held prisoner as in Vietnam – so some planners began to look at the possibility of developing a conventionally armed version of the ALCM. Using this, a plane could approach a regional conflict and attack targets with “stand-off” weapons, without putting the crew at risk.
One of the overall worries for the US Air Force was that its role in projecting military power might diminish, and might even be taken over by its bitter rival, the US Navy, with its aircraft carriers and sea-launched cruise missiles. After all, interventions in the early 1980s in Lebanon and Grenada had mainly involved the Navy, the Marines, and, to an extent, the Army. Future threats looked likely to include sudden regional crises that could break out many thousands of miles from the United States, especially in the Middle East or South East Asia. For the Air Force to get “a piece of the action,” it would normally have to find a way of forward-basing its aircraft within range of the conflict, whereas the more flexible Navy, with its large nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, had a considerable advantage. The Navy therefore stood a much better chance of maintaining its budget at a time of defence cuts.
All of these potential problems were brought home to the USAF by the disaster of the raid on Libya in April 1986, intended to punish the “rogue state” of Colonel Gaddafi. This was a joint operation between the Air Force and the Navy, with the latter flying its strike aircraft against Libya from aircraft carriers only a few hundred miles away in the Mediterranean. The Air Force, though, had to use F-111 bombers operating from bases in Britain, as southern European allies such as Italy were unwilling to let the USAF conduct this controversial operation from bases in their countries.
Worse still, although the British government under Margaret Thatcher was more than willing to let British bases be used, the Spanish and French governments refused even to let the bombers over-fly their territories. As a consequence, the aircraft had to fly an extraordinary “round-the-houses” route out over the Bay of Biscay and the eastern Atlantic, through the Straits of Gibraltar, and across the western Mediterranean, using multiple air-to-air refuellings. Crew fatigue in the cramped cockpits was high, bombs were mistakenly dropped on civilian areas, killing and injuring scores of people, and one plane was lost with its crew.
After the Libya raid, the Air Force planners sought to find a way to provide the much larger strategic bombers such as the B-52, designed specifically for long-range operations, with the ability to project conventional air power worldwide. But their role was to deliver nuclear weapons and the ALCMs were one of the main ways of doing this. What was clearly required was a change of policy and a re-equipment process to give the Air Force “global reach” with conventional weapons.
As a result, a highly secret program was started to convert nuclear-armed ALCMs into conventional missiles. The nuclear warhead was stripped out and replaced with a 1,000-pound blast fragmentation warhead, and the guidance system was updated with a global positioning satellite receiver. The result was the conventional ALCM or CALCM, known by the bomber crews as the Secret Squirrel.
By the end of the 1980s the process was complete and a small number of crews were trained in the new system. With the ending of the Cold War, the US Air Force waited for an opportunity to prove its new weapon, and that came on the opening day of Desert Storm. It was not relevant that the targets could have been attacked much more easily with the Navy’s ship-launched missiles a few hundred miles from Iraq; the point was that it demonstrated the ability of the US Air Force to hit targets almost anywhere in the world with impunity. In short, it provided one instrument for keeping the violent peace in the uncertain world that has replaced the Cold War era.
The Cold War was also a period of intense nuclear confrontation. To a detached observer, the excesses of the nuclear arms race are almost unbelievable, yet two apparently sane alliances embarked on an arms race in which extraordinarily dangerous postures became the order of the day. Some of the nuclear accidents and crises of this era were acknowledged at the time, but others are only just beginning to see the light of day as the archives are opened up and some of the participants talk with a freedom that would have been impossible at the time.
There was a succession of anti-nuclear movements, especially in the 1960s and 1980s, but these have withered, at least until recently, as it has become received wisdom that the age of nuclear danger is over. When recent developments within the nuclear powers are reviewed and current trends are assessed, leading on directly from the experience of the Cold War, the conclusion has to be reached that the nuclear age is far from over, merely in a state of transition. The massive Cold War nuclear arsenals and the risk of a worldwide “central nuclear exchange” may be diminished, but the utility of nuclear weapons remains a key component of the defence strategies of the declared nuclear powers, as well as Israel. Moreover, the development of biological and chemical weapons and the proliferation of ballistic missiles is seen to represent a means by which weaker states can challenge the power of the stronger, a challenge that may require a nuclear response.
While nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction will be major features of the coming decades, the main methods by which the world’s powerful states, especially the United States, seek to maintain their control of international security are through the appropriate use of conventional forces. Threats are seen to stem from a possible revival of a belligerent Russia, or of an increasingly powerful China, together with the activities of “rogue states” and terrorists and even of ideological or religious movements, especially militant Islam. The western military are making the transition to post-Cold War forces that can keep the lid on threats to western security. Global reach, rapid deployment forces, counterinsurgency, and missile defences all have their role to play, and there is a persistent emphasis on control from a distance, especially if it can involve a minimum of risk. The death toll for coalition forces in the Gulf War in 1991 was in the low hundreds (many of them through friendly fire), compared with tens of thousands of Iraqis killed. In Kosovo, none of the NATO military lost their lives in combat, yet the Serbian economy was wrecked and several thousand Serbs were killed, including over 1,000 civilians.
Stretching on from the current era of cruise missiles and stealth bombers will come the deployment of pilot-less aircraft, small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can roam and deploy weapons at will, together with cyber-war and other techniques intended to disable an enemy’s command and control systems and wreck an economy. Beyond this will come a further military revolution, still in its very early stages, that will lead to directed energy weapons – lasers, particle beams, and their relatives that will achieve remarkable accuracy and speed and will also be well-nigh invulnerable to conventional defences.
While the overall effect of these developments in weapons, postures, and strategies might seem to provide convincing arguments that the world’s elite states can indeed maintain their security, this conclusion is fundamentally wrong. The core parameters of international conflict in the coming decades are the growing rich-poor divide and the increasing problem of environmental constraints on human development. Furthermore, western strategies for controlling a polarised and environmentally constrained world do not take into account the fundamental vulnerabilities of modern urban-industrial states to asymmetric warfare, not least the development of “force equilisers” such as biological weapons. Attempting to keep the lid on insecurity – “liddism” – without addressing the core reasons for dissent, will not work. It is more likely to make western elite societies more vulnerable, a trend already beginning to be recognised by some military analysts.
Some quite fundamental rethinking of our attitudes to security is necessary. Countering socioeconomic divisions and embracing sustainable development are actually core requirements for stable international security. In one sense this is nothing new and has been a common argument in writings on environmental and development issues for a couple of decades, such as the Brandt and Bruntland reports. What is different is the need to link this to thinking on international security so that the prevailing paradigm of a western elite maintaining its security, if need be by military means, is recognised as not just unsustainable but actually self-defeating. There are many impressive arguments that a polarised and constrained world is not acceptable on the grounds of morality and justice. From a security perspective, it cannot and will not work. An alternative security paradigm is required.
Information concerning the development of the conventionally armed air-launched cruise missile and the raid on Iraq in January 1991 did not enter the public domain until several years after the Gulf War. The most detailed account is to be found in John Tirpal, “The Secret Squirrels,” Air Force Magazine, April 1994. Air Force Magazine has been one of the most consistent proponents of the development and use of long-range air power as a core facet of US security policy since the Cold War, with a series of articles throughout the 1990s exploring this theme.