Home / Robert Farley / You Say Proliferation, I Say Diffusion

You Say Proliferation, I Say Diffusion


I have some thoughts on the diffusion of anti-access military technology over at The Diplomat

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a strong political incentive to maximize diffusion of its military capabilities.  Proxies with Soviet technology could fight the United States and its proxies on their own. Consequently, states from North Korea to Vietnam to Cuba to Syria, Iraq, and Egypt gained access to the many of the most advanced Soviet fighter, submarine, and missile systems. Often, these systems overwhelmed the capacity of recipients, with buyers lacking the ability to put pilots in planes, sailors in subs, and mechanics in either. Nevertheless, these systems still forced the United States to act cautiously; the combination of a couple Nanuchka class missile boats, some Foxtrot subs, a few MiG-23s and a reasonably sophisticated air defense system could give the US Navy or Air Force a bad day.

Russia doesn’t see much of an upside in this kind of diffusion today.  States get the equipment they can pay for, without political subsidy . China has displayed little interest in developing proxy relationships of the type seen in the Cold War. Moreover, few states have an interest in devoting resources and attention to making life difficult for a superpower.  Still, given the rapidly advancing capabilities of China’s anti-access forces, questions of diffusion and proliferation bear consideration.


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  • It bears note that the United States has spearheaded efforts to establish a normative framework that militates against the spread of the most effective anti-access technologies.

    Aw, isn’t that heartwarming?

    • ajay

      It bears note that the United States has spearheaded efforts to establish a normative framework that militates against the spread of the most effective anti-access technologies.

      With the exception of TOW and HAWK missiles, which they sold illegally to Iran, and Stingers and anti-personnel landmines, which they supplied to the Afghan mujahedin.

  • Derelict

    I’m of a mixed mind when it comes to some of these things. I think it’s a good thing that the Pentagon games all kinds of scenarios, including ones that are so far-fetched as to seem laughable (i.e., the U.S. fighting a land war against France in the Balkans).

    On the other hand, it is seriously detrimental that we actually devote funding to developing and maintaining the capability to fight simultaneous wars against Russia, the Chinese, Brazil AND France. It’s even worse that more than half of our politicians see any cut to such expenditures as openly advocating for the U.S. to be taken over.

    • Pseudonym

      The U.S. can barely manage to fight a land war in Afghanistan, even with Iraq out of the picture. Clearly we need a vast increase in military funding if we’re to take on those cheese-eating surrender monkeys.

    • John F

      Obviously when we are war gaming against “France,” we are using France as a proxy for another hypothetical adversary. WE war gamed against the UK all the time after WWI…

      If we war gamed against Russia some would take that as confirmatory evidence of our hostile intent against Russia

  • c u n d gulag

    GOP POV:
    And THIS is why we need to INCREASE our military budget!

    Just because we don’t have another Superpower or two to fight in proxy wars, means we need to invade more countries, because they looked at us funny, or stuck their tongue out, or flipped us ‘the bird’ when we turned our backs, or something.


  • If they’re giving away MiGs I’d be happy to take a couple off their hands.

    • i.boskone

      -17 or -21, Major Kong? ;)

      • I was always fond of the -21.

        I know of a couple for sale, but I’d go broke buying fuel.

        Even a T-38, about as efficient as high performance jets get, would burn over $1000/hour in fuel.

        • Pseudonym

          And that’s with only a quarter the number of engines of your preferred ride, right?

          • Major Kong

            Everybody grab a throttle! We’re going around!

            • ajay

              I heard the story about the F-104 pilot who was told to go around because a B-52 was coming in for an emergency landing with one engine out:
              “Of course. Can’t be easy handling the dreaded seven-engine landing.”

  • wengler

    The CCP is a lot more cautious on the world stage and obviously has a different economic strategy than the Soviet Union.

  • Lurker

    [T]he combination of a couple Nanuchka class missile boats, some Foxtrot subs, a few MiG-23s and a reasonably sophisticated air defense system could give the US Navy or Air Force a bad day.

    This was not really the strategy behind the Soviet arms deals to third world countries. The main idea was not to prevent the access of the US forces to such countries. Instead, the Soviets aimed to increase their political influence by selling arms. This was mirrored in the export versions: there were several export versions of Soviet weapon systems. As far as I know, those sold to Warsaw Pact had the highest performance. Then, those sold to Arabs, for example, had quite bad quality. For example, in certain shipments of T-72 tanks, the complex armor plating was seriously worse than in the domestic tanks. Instead of high-quality steel, certain armor layers were sand.

    However, even the buyers would not dream of standing up to the combined might of a couple of carrier task forces. Instead, they were buying a force that was capable to achieve local dominance or parity with the regional opponents and to overwhelm any domestic political opposition. The reason why these weapon systems seem to the US as anti-access systems proliferated to hinder US operations lies in the Soviet military doctrine. The Soviets relied very much on area-denial capabilities even in their own operations.

    The Soviets were selling usually “light” versions of their organisations to the prospective buyers, thereby forcing the buyer to adopt the Soviet tactical doctrine and to resort to Soviet officer training. Typically, the Soviets would not sell you “100 tanks” but a package of “30 main battle tanks, 90 infantry fighting vehicles, 36 122 mm guns, 6 122 mm rocket launchers, 2 anti-aircraft gun batteries (vehicle-mounted or towable), one light anti-aircraft missile battery, a logistical battallion vehicle complement and associated small arms and communications systems for a brigade”. Similarly, you would not buy “MiGs” but a complete fighter wing equipment package complete with small arms and ground vehicles. The area-denial weapons were simply part of the package.

    Of course, buying such package was often not a good deal, for it required a good industrial and educational capability for maintenance. But the US encourages its allies to buy weapon systems that are equally badly suited to their needs. A prominent example is Georgia, whose most modern infantry unit in 2008 was a light infantry battallion designed for counter-insurgency warfare. When this unit, which was purposed to fight against a sub-state enemy as a part of a US-lead coalition, went to fight the Russians in 2008, it was destroyed in a couple of hours. The old-fashioned but heavy Russian mechanized infantry was something they could not match.

    • Dave

      OTOH, buying 100 tanks w/o a support package would just see you down the road a couple of years with 100 hunks of rusting metal…

      • Anonymous

        True, but I tried to explain (and failed) that the Soviets did not primarily “distribute area denial capabilities” but were trying to get their customers build balanced forces that were suited to fight using Soviet tactical doctrine. This doctrine utilised area denial weapons much more than the corresponding US doctrines, even with the Soviet main force. Examples:
        * Fast attack craft for coastal fighting and ground operations support.
        * Strong, integrated regiment, division and corps level anti aircraft defence that was as mobile as the supported units.
        * Strong anti-tank capability: a anti-tank missile launcher on every BMP-1 and BMP-2
        * Mig 21: a short-range interceptor fighter with ground attack capability
        * Extremely strong artillery

        The actual doctrine was offensive: the weapons systems were designed to wear down the opposing force by massive use of overwhelming firepower at relatively short ranges from the support bases. The US military sees these weapons no only as area-denial weapons systems because they are capable of that function also, if used in small scale.

        Similarly, a typical modern third world military force equipped and trained with US support is an elite counter-terrorist unit with night vision, personal armor, highly developed communications and light, unarmored transports. If that force would be cut from its original tactical doctrine and moved to a completely different military-political situation, the counter-terrorist special force could be well repurposed as a guerilla unit, although this is definitely not its intended function.

        30 years from now, the Chinese may be similarly wailing the proliferation of insurgency technologies by the US.

      • Lurker

        The above comment is mine.

  • Jason

    I’m curious as to how one would justify an arms control agreement on cruise missiles for the purposes of limiting an A2/AD system. Usually there’s been more of an altruistic purpose for limiting a particular weapon system, e.g., nuclear weapons, anti-personnel mines, because they might adversely impact noncombatants. How do you get the groundswell for this? Don’t see it.

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