In the past month, Russia’s long-range nuclear bombers, alongside some of their most capable fighters, have made two flights through Alaska’s Air Defense Identification Zone. In both instances, America’s most capable fighters, F-22 Raptors, were scrambled to intercept, ensuring the Russian aircraft wouldn’t have the opportunity to enter American airspace even if they had intended to. But, and in keeping with tradition, the Russian and American aircraft met in the skies above the northern Pacific, flew alongside one another for a short time, and then parted ways.
No harm, no foul.
Among the service members tasked with making these intercepts, I can imagine that a fair amount of effort goes into combating the complacency that comes from making these intercepts on a fairly regular basis. Here in the rest of the country, however, an opposing effort has been unintentionally mounted. Defense journalists and well-informed cynics who enjoy being the contrarian in online debates have been eager to dismiss these most recent intercepts as “just the latest” in a long history of Russian provocation.
“This happens all the time.”
“This isn’t a big deal, why are we even talking about it?”
The intent behind these statements, of course, is to dissuade the Chicken Littles that announce the sky is falling every time they spot a Russian Tu-95 bomber in the skies over the Pacific. But the unintended effect is encouraging complacency among the American people.
Nowadays, our very concept of conflict and warfare is insulated by 73 years of relative peace. Yes, the United States has been at war for nearly two decades, but those wars have been intrinsically different from the state conflicts of the past. American forces engaging in counterinsurgency and anti-terror operations have been fighting a difficult fight, but one with unique threats as compared to the defense initiatives of many other nations that are still genuinely fighting to defend their very sovereignty. America’s war effort has been about rooting out threats to national security, but in much of the world, Defense is a far different enterprise than we perceive it in the relative safety and comfort of the United States.
Put simply, because it’s been 73 years since the United States found itself fighting an open war with a near-peer level opponent, most modern Americans have lived their entire lives in a world where going to war meant deploying troops to the other side of the globe to achieve some objective. America goes to war, war doesn’t come to America.
Then Russian Tu-95 bombers, their equivalent to America’s B-52, enter into Alaska’s Air Defense Identification Zone again, and as a populous, we scoff at the “war hawks” sounding the alarm.
War doesn’t come to America, we say dismissively. This happens all the time.
Russia may not be an actual near-peer level threat with its current economy, but then again, Russia isn’t planning to mount an offensive against the United States today, either. Unlike in America, where we’re utterly incapable of viewing national level efforts without skewing them through the lens of the presidential election cycle, the Kremlin has long demonstrated a propensity for the long game. Like sowing seeds of discord among the American people through hybrid warfare efforts in digital media, Russian intentions are far larger and more pervasive than simply influencing a single election—or flying a few bomber flights.
The purpose behind these “frequent” bomber excursions near Alaska (and elsewhere in the world) is twofold. The first, they’re training for combat operations should they need ever arise. The second, however, is where the defense media has been unintentionally bolstering Russian messaging: they hope to encourage a level of complacency regarding their operations in that region of the world.
I don’t deny that the Russian bombers flying into Alaskan airspace this week posed little direct threat to American national security, but in a manner of speaking, their offensive operation was nonetheless a success. Russia has once again managed to dictate a narrative to a foreign nation that offers them a palpable strategic advantage. Americans don’t think Russian bombers near Alaska are anything to be worried about in 2018, and if the frequency of these flights continues, Americans will care even less in 2020 — thanks in large part to the chorus of voices encouraging Americans to dismiss these provocations every time they occur.
It’s like choosing to ignore the serial killer in your bushes because “he hides there all the time.”
Russian bombers aren’t gearing up to launch an offensive against the United States this week, but if the day ever comes that they do, they’ll almost certainly benefit from our collective eagerness to claim that the days of real war are behind us. Conflict is intrinsic to human nature, and we’ve managed to mitigate that to a great extent for decades — but peace is not the norm for humans. It must be treasured, cultivated, and, at times, even defended.
Peace can only be truly secured through preparation and deterrence.
Peace cannot be maintained through complacency.