Will world war be October surprise?

Will an "October surprise" in the prelude to the mid-term elections in the US be the outbreak of world war—that is, direct superpower conflict? Things are escalating fast on the frontlines with both of the United States' major imperial rivals. The US Navy's Pacific Fleet has drawn up a classified proposal to carry out a "global show of force" as a warning to China. The draft proposal reportedly calls for the Pacific Fleet to conduct a series of exercises in the coming weeks, involving warships, combat aircraft and troops, to demonstrate that the US can "counter potential adversaries" quickly on several fronts. (CNN) The plans come after a near-skirmish between a US warship and a Chinese destroyer in the disputed South China Sea on Oct. 2. The two vessles came within yards of each other, compelling the US ship to abruptly switch direction. US officials called the Chinese vessel's behavior "unsafe and unprofessional." while Beijing is accusing the US of violating its sovereignty. (WaPo)

Meanwhile, NATO is planning to conduct its largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War in late October, involving 150 aircraft, 60 ships, 45,000 soldiers, and more than 10,000 military vehicles. Trident Juncture 2018 will principally take place in Norway, and will also include Finland, Sweden and Iceland. The exercise will serve as the final assessment of NATO's new Spearhead Force, designed to deploy forces within 48 hours.

Last month, Russia held its biggest manoeuvres in decades, Vostok-2018, in the east of the country, with participation of forces from China and Mongolia. The exercise involved nearly 300,000 soldiers, 36,000 tanks and military vehicles, some 1,000 aircraft, and 80 warships. (EurActiv)

And all this is happening as Washington and Moscow are odds over missile deployments—with an unsettling sense of '80s nostalgia. US Defense Secretary James Mattis charges that Russia is in "blatant violation" of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which bans ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The US first accused Moscow of violating the treaty in 2014, pointing to Russia's deployment of the Novator 9M729 (known to NATO as the SSC-8). Moscow in turn charges that the US is in violation by deploying its new missile defense system in Poland and Romania. (BBC NewsThe Hill, Radio Poland, Romania Insider)

US ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison implicitly broached a pre-emptive strike if diplomatic efforts to remove the SSC-8 failed. "At that point, we would be looking at the capability to take out a [Russian] missile that could hit any of our countries," Hutchison told a news conference. "Counter-measures would be to take out the missiles that are in development by Russia in violation of the treaty. They are on notice." (Reuters)

Nine countries in the world currently possess a total of 14,575 nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia account for 92% of these. Since their peak in the mid-1980's, global arsenals have shrunk by over two-thirds. (Ploughshares Fund) However, the current world arsenal is still sufficient to bring on nuclear winter.

While the total number US troops stationed in Europe is but a tenth of the approximately 250,000 deployed there at the height of the Cold War in the '80s, the Trident Juncture and Atlantic Resolve NATO exercises in recent years have have been the largest since that era. (CNN, Jan. 14, 2017)

Image: Lockheed Martin

  1. Star Wars redux

    In a speech at the Pentagon Jan. 17, Trump pledged to build a new system of space-based anti-missile weapons. "Our goal is simple: to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States—anywhere, anytime, anyplace," Trump said. “In a time of rapidly evolving threats, we must be certain that our defensive capabilities are unrivaled and unmatched anywhere in the world."

    Trump did not mention Russia, China or North Korea, but acting defense secretary Pat Shanahan, who also spoke, cited the new "hypersonic" missiles being developed by Russia. The Pentagon's new National Defense Strategy, released last January, contrasts starkly with the last one released in 2014, by specifically calling for aggressive measures to counter Russia and China, rather than just Islamist militants and "rogue" states. (AP, ToI, Politico)

  2. US formally suspends INF treaty

    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Feb. 1 that the US will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which bans ground-launched missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

    Pompeo charged Russian noncompliance with the treaty: "For years Russia has violated the terms of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty without remorse… When an agreement is so brazenly disregarded and our security is so threatened, we must respond."

    In a statement, President Donald Trump said that the onus is on Russia to end its alleged violations of the treaty. "The United States has fully adhered to the INF Treaty for more than 30 years, but we will not remain constrained by its terms while Russia misrepresents its actions," Trump said.

    The US has long accused Moscow of violating the terms of the treaty with a missile deployed near European borders. Russia has claimed that it is not in violation of the treaty, and that its 9M729 missile has a permitted range of less than 500 kilometers. (Jurist)

  3. US begins production of new nuclear weapon

    The US Department of Energy has started making a new, low-yield nuclear weapon designed to counter Russia. The National Nuclear Security Administration says production of the weapon, known as the W76-2, has begun at its Pantex Plant in the Texas Panhandle. The weapon is a variant of the Navy's primary submarine-launched nuclear weapon, the W76-1. In a document known as the Nuclear Posture Review, the administration claimed that Russia believed its own, smaller nuclear weapons could give it an advantage in a conflict.  (NPR)