Intervention and the Nuclear Firebreak in the Middle East

by Michael Klare
published in MER128

The “deadly connection” -- the link between interventionism, conventional warfare and nuclear war -- has now become a major issue for the peace movement. This, in turn, has compelled those working on nuclear disarmament questions to begin to deal with the Middle East and US policy there. The reason for this is simple. When we look at specific regions of the world, it is obvious that the Middle East is the area where the connection arises in its most acute and dangerous form -- the area where a nuclear war is most likely to break out.

This is not because the people of the Middle East are inherently more violent, divisive or malevolent than people elsewhere; people in other areas have engaged in conflicts, and some of those are as intractable and murderous as those in the Middle East. In Northern Ireland, for instance, we see a conflict which has persisted for many years. What makes the Middle East so dangerous is the fact that nowhere else in the world have the US and the Soviet Union so intermingled their own competitive dynamic with the region’s indigenous struggles -- struggles that have their roots in a history that began long before the Cold War. This intersection of the US-Soviet rivalry with pre-existing regional conflicts can someday escalate into a superpower confrontation and thence trigger World War III. That is the deadly connection.

Superpower Involvement in the Middle East

The interests of the superpowers collide in a number of different regions -- in Europe, the Far East, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. It is entirely possible that a nuclear war could break out in any of these regions. The heaviest concentrations of US and Soviet forces are in Europe and in the Far East (where China, the Soviet Union, Korea and Japan converge). Unlike the Middle East, though, the dividing lines between the forces in those regions are rather clear. In Europe the division between East and West goes back 40 years, and is now recognized by the Helsinki Agreement. There is a sense of clear demarcation. Similarly, in the Far East, although the borders between the USSR and China are contested, there is a clear demarcation between North and South Korea. There is nothing inherently desirable about those demarcations, but they do exist.

Moreover, the forces and the ratio of forces on both sides in those areas are such that neither side is likely to perceive any incentive for provoking a conflict. Neither side is capable of acquiring such an overwhelming advantage that it would view an invasion of the other at all possible. (There is not a scrap of credibility in the propaganda in the media about the Soviet buildup in Eastern Europe posing an overpowering threat to Western Europe. That is all manufactured to sustain NATO -- the biggest bureaucracy and welfare program in the world.) As a result, an armed conflict is not likely to break out there. The risk is perhaps greater in the Far East, but there, too, the balance of forces is such that neither side is likely to have or perceive any advantage.

This is not true in the Middle East. Here, the lines are fluid and changing. The alliances between the US and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies are highly interspersed. The Soviet Union has military advisers in Syria, South Yemen, Ethiopia and Libya; the US has military advisors in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Oman, Kuwait and Turkey, and extensive military collaboration with Israel. The forces are interspersed, the alliances intersect, and the naval forces of both sides trail each others’ wakes in the area. When Washington had an armada off the coast of Lebanon -- including the battleship New Jersey -- there were also Soviet warships in the area, including submarines. This is also the case in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf. This constant interlacing of the forces of the US and the Soviet Union means that as regional conflicts flare up, they are likely to bring in the forces of one or both of the superpowers.

True, this sort of fluidity and interspersing of forces also exists to some extent in Southeast Asia and in the Caribbean. But in neither of those areas have the two superpowers committed forces on the scale that they have in the Middle East. In Central America, the US is overwhelmingly the predominant military power; in Southeast Asia, Vietnam, a Soviet ally, is predominant. There is no area other than the Middle East where both sides have committed significant naval, ground and air forces simultaneously. The US Sixth Fleet is in the eastern Mediterranean; the Seventh Fleet is in the Indian Ocean, with ships in the Persian Gulf. The US effectively has bases in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Oman, Egypt, Morocco, Kenya, Somalia and Israel. Likewise, the Soviets have a large naval presence in those waters, and bases in South Yemen and Ethiopia.

Additionally, both superpowers have prepared substantial armies for intervention in that part of the world. The US has created the Rapid Deployment Force, comprising an estimated 300,000 soldiers; the Soviets have a force of similar scale, based in the southwestern corner of the USSR, that is available for deployment in this region. And we have seen in Afghanistan that the Soviets are prepared, under certain circumstances in which they feel their security to be threatened, to use those forces in an interventionary mode.

Why do we have this heavy engagement of US and Soviet forces in this area? The Middle East borders on the Soviet Union and poses a potential security threat to it. It is an area of much inter-state conflict and social upheaval. The Middle East is also viewed as a strategic area by the US. Turkey is a NATO country, and NATO refers to the Middle East as its “southern flank.” So Israel and Lebanon constitute the southern flank of NATO, and the forces that were in Beirut -- the Thirty-Second Marine Amphibious Unit, plus the ships offshore -- are part of the US commitment to the NATO force structure. The region is also part of the “forward defense line” against the Soviet Union. It is considered to be such a critical national security interest that the official US policy, according to the Carter Doctrine and the Reagan administration’s Defense Guidance document, calls for the use of military force to protect it. In this region, then, we see the conjunction of uncertainty and fluidity, an interspersing of forces, and a very heavy military commitment. This makes the Middle East a region of great risk and great danger in terms of the ongoing conflict between the superpowers.

Middle East Arms Transfers

The Middle East has also been the recipient of the largest international transfer of modern arms in recent history. There has been a truly extraordinary increase in the international trade in sophisticated conventional weapons over the past 15 years. Between 1976 and 1983, the major suppliers -- the US, the Soviet Union and the Western European countries -- transferred a quarter of a trillion dollars worth of modern weapons to the Third World. Approximately two-thirds of this went to the Middle East, notably to Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran (under the Shah) and Libya.

Although measured in dollars, these figures also represent a tremendous increase in the sophistication and capability of the weapons sold to those countries. The nations of the Middle East today are on a par with the countries of NATO and the Warsaw Pact in terms of access to the most sophisticated weapons to roll off the production lines of the US and the Soviet Union. Washington sold AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia before it sold them to NATO; now the Soviet Union is supplying advanced SAM (surface-to-air) missiles to Syria prior to giving them to its own allies in Eastern Europe, let alone countries like Vietnam and Cuba. Soviet arms sales to Nicaragua and Cuba are just a trickle compared to what the Soviets are supplying to the Middle East. Similarly, for the US, the most sophisticated arms sales are going to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

This concentration on arms transfers, especially of these very sophisticated weapons, is a reflection of the strategic importance that the two superpowers accord to the area. Arms sales have become, short of intervention, the most important instrument of political influence and penetration on the part of the superpowers in this part of the world. It is a way of inserting a kind of surrogate military presence in those countries which tie the client to the supplying nation for training, spare parts and maintenance, and operation of this very sophisticated equipment. Those AWACS planes that Saudi Arabia bought for $8.5 billion are not going to be operated by Saudis; that will be done largely by the US Air Force and Boeing. It will be an American operation from start to finish. Similarly, the Soviets are operating on a day-to-day basis the sophisticated air defense weapons they supplied to Syria and other countries in the region. Arms transfers involve not just the equipment itself, but also a kind of military intervention, a long-term military presence in the countries of the area.

Consequences of a Militarized Middle East

The result of all this is that wars in the area are going to be fought at increasing levels of violence. We have seen that already: each of the Arab-Israeli wars over the past 20 years seems to have resulted in higher rates of casualties and destruction -- in terms of tanks destroyed, planes downed and people killed. The 1982 war in Lebanon was one of the most intense conventional conflicts we have seen since the end of World War II -- in the tempo of fighting, in what they call the “attrition rate” of ammunition, and of course in the number of casualties. This increase in intensity will continue to mount as the arsenals of these countries are continually modernized and expanded.

One consequence of all this is that when and if the superpowers are drawn into these conflicts, the type of combat they will confront will be unlike anything either of them has encountered since World War II. Vietnam and Afghanistan tend to be our image of war -- conflicts where high-tech troops fought peasants armed with light weapons left over from World War II. But if the superpowers go to war in the Middle East today, they are going to be facing troops armed with weapons every bit as powerful and sophisticated as the weapons their own troops are going to be carrying, and the soldiers they will meet will be part of highly trained, modern professional armies. We saw a glimmer of that when US aircraft tried to attack Syrian air defense positions outside of Beirut, and the US lost two planes in one small raid. In that particular encounter, American pilots were attacked with hundreds of missiles, some of them very accurate. If the US went into that kind of fighting on a day-to-day basis, as it did in Vietnam, it would lose many more aircraft.

What this means is that if American forces go to war in the Middle East, the attrition rate -- the losses on our side -- will probably be as high as on the other side. A recently leaked Pentagon memo estimated that in the event that the Rapid Deployment Force went into war in the Persian Gulf, as many as 60 percent of its soldiers would be killed or wounded in the first two months of battle. That is a casualty rate that America has never experienced in its entire history -- not in World War I or World War II, not in Vietnam or Korea, not ever. As a military force, the RDF would be annihilated in two months.

Given that scenario, one that is anticipated by the US brass themselves, what will be the Pentagon’s response? Their most likely response will be to escalate the level of power. Indeed, the growing power of Third World armies is forcing a revolution in US military doctrine and in the military technology provided to regular US combat troops. These troops will not have ICBMs, or the MX or Trident-II; but paralleling the development of these strategic nuclear weapons is an equally profound transformation in the technology and in the doctrine of US tactical combat forces?what are called the General Purpose Forces (Army divisions, the Marine Corps, the Navy’s surface ships, the Tactical Air Command, and so forth). They are all being equipped with new high-tech conventional weapons. The aim of this revolution in military technology is to insure that American forces, even if outnumbered by any potential enemy, will always have the option of escalating on the technology scale in order to overcome any threats by their adversaries.

There is, however, a big risk in all this: you can only escalate so far in the realm of conventional weapons. At the lower range of the spectrum of conflict we have unconventional war and low-intensity conventional war? that is, combat between guerrillas and commandos and CIA mercenaries and so forth. That is what the US is now sustaining in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mid-intensity conventional war would cover a fairly high tempo of military operations with modern equipment. The Falklands/Malvinas conflict or the Lebanon war of 1982 are good examples. High-intensity conventional warfare is when you throw everything short of nuclear weapons into the war. Then there is something called the “firebreak,” the nuclear firebreak, which separates the most powerful conventional weapons from the least powerful nuclear weapons -- the so-called “tactical” or “battlefield” (short-range) nuclear weapons. (These are the sort of weapons now bristling on the East German-West German border -- atomic demolition mines, short-range artillery and atomic artillery projectiles. Some of these weapons are also in South Korea.) Then we move up a step to “theater” nuclear warfare and to bigger, intermediate-range nuclear weapons. These are weapons capable of a larger scale of destruction, like those used against Hiroshima, but aimed or intended for conflict within a particular region; included here are the Cruise missiles and Pershing-IIs, now being deployed in Europe. Then, of course, there is “strategic” nuclear war -- Armageddon.

If and when US forces go into combat in the Middle East, they will be using their high-tech conventional weapons. Thus, from the very beginning, we will be engaged in high-intensity conventional combat. Because of the concentration of advanced conventional weapons in the arsenals of Third World countries, US forces are equipped to start fighting at this high point on the spectrum when committed in places like the Middle East. In that kind of situation, if the conflict reaches the level of intensity that the Pentagon predictions about RDF casualties suggest, then within the first few days of combat our troops will move to the very edge of the nuclear firebreak.

Eroding The Firebreak

At the same time that our forces are prone to escalate in this direction, they are being equipped with a new generation of powerful conventional arms which I call “near-nuclear” conventional weapons. These weapons incorporate very sophisticated anti-personnel munitions with highly accurate delivery systems. Some of these weapons, developed under the Pentagon’s “Assault Breaker” program, can approach the destructive potential of the smallest US nuclear bombs. Increasingly, therefore, the conventional side of the firebreak is being eroded by the introduction of these new weapons. These, it seems to me, are more likely to be used in the Middle East than anywhere else.

At the same time, erosion is taking place on the other side of the firebreak, with the introduction of smaller and smaller nuclear weapons. The neutron bomb now exists in an artillery shell for 8-inch howitzers, a fairly widespread piece of military equipment. In the Fiscal Year 1985 defense budget, moreover, the Reagan administration wants to introduce a neutron warhead for the 155mm artillery piece, which is widely deployed in both US Army and Marine Corps divisions. Once this warhead is deployed, standard artillery cannons could be used to deliver either conventional warheads or neutron warheads interchangeably.

In other words, the firebreak is being erased from both sides simultaneously, as US forces become "dual-capable" -- capable of fighting with either conventional or nuclear weapons. They are being trained for this now, and are being equipped with the necessary delivery systems. Moreover, they are being endowed with a doctrine that stresses escalation rather than stalemate in any future military encounters. I simply do not believe that the US military would permit a 60 percent casualty rate in a future war. Nor do I believe they will say “Let’s give up and go home.” The logic of all that I’ve described is that somebody will say, “We’re equipped for it, we’re trained for it, we’ve got no choice, we’ve got to go across the firebreak.” That’s how World War III would begin. The official doctrine does not talk that way, of course. It talks about “the utility of low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons.” But this is what it’s all about -- to integrate the new neutron and other “small” nuclear weapons into our tactical combat forces.

At the same time, moreover, the Reagan administration is trying to erase the distinction between battlefield and theater nuclear weapons. That is why the Cruise missile and Pershing-IIs are being put into Europe. These theater nuclear weapons can deliver Hiroshima-scale warheads on Soviet cities. Beginning in 1984, the New Jersey and other US warships will be armed with nuclear-armed Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs), identical to the Tomahawk ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) the US is deploying in Europe. When the New Jersey next sails to the eastern Mediterranean, it will be capable of firing 32 SCLMs with nuclear warheads 1,500 miles into the USSR and the Middle East.

As we have seen, this whole thrust toward escalation stretches clear across the spectrum of violence. This is a very frightening prospect. This sort of bumping up against the firebreak could happen on land or at sea, because we have nuclear-armed ships in the eastern Mediterranean that are within range of the Soviet-supplied SS-21s in Syria. There are also Soviet submarines in the Mediterranean that could attack our nuclear-armed carriers. Conventional conflict in the Middle East could escalate, drawing in the US and Soviet forces and producing very high rates of casualties. One could imagine different scenarios, but I do not think that is the point. The structural situation is the great danger: the threat is that an indigenous local conflict with its very high level of conventional violence will bring in the superpowers; then, finding themselves facing possible defeat, they will escalate rather than withdraw; and if unable to escalate in the conventional arena, they will escalate into the tactical nuclear arena, thereby setting off the chain reaction leading to World War III.

Severing the Deadly Connection

That combination of events is the “deadly connection” that the peace movement must sever. Unfortunately, most of our attention is focused exclusively on the strategic nuclear area. That is what the Freeze addresses, what the Democratic candidates talk about, what the arms control community agonizes about, and what the START talks are about. But just as we have a great responsibility to oppose first-strike nuclear weapons and the arms race at the strategic level, we also have to confront the deadly connection in the middle area, at the firebreak -- the area where a nuclear war would begin.

These two things are of equal importance, and basically address the same problem -- the growing nuclearization of our military posture. We see this with the MX and Trident and the Reagan administration’s “protracted nuclear war” doctrine; we also see it in this conscious effort to erode the firebreak and to nuclearize our tactical combat forces. The peace movement must have two equal priorities: first, to freeze the arms race and reduce our strategic nuclear arsenal, and second, to preserve the firebreak, to oppose deployment of the neutron bomb and of conventional weapons with near-nuclear capabilities, and to end the sale of high-tech conventional arms to countries in dangerous war zones like the Middle East. We have to move our forces back from the brink; we have to negotiate with the Soviets to separate our forces in the Middle East, and to prevent the kind of military intervention that would trigger World War III.

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