The Israeli Air Force lost 102 planes during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, most to Russian-built surface-to-air-missiles (SAMs). Russian air defenses swept the skies of the Middle East, which meant that they could sweep the European skies in a war with NATO. Added to the Warsaw Pact’s massive conventional advantage in terms of tanks and troops, Russian air superiority guaranteed victory in any prospective war with NATO. That consideration launched Russia on a campaign of expansion that culminated in the December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, and brought the world to the brink of World War III.
Beating Russia wasn’t easy. It took massive resources, inventiveness, and guts. When Reagan was president, the U.S. spent about 1.5 percent of GDP on “hard” R&D, mostly military and space. Now the figure is half that, and most of the half goes to climate change, or to the F-35, the monster that ate the R&D budget. In 1981 America’s top corporations maintained big research labs — Bell, GE, RCA, Hughes, IBM, and many others. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency underwrote basic R&D and the private sector took the risk of commercialization. That was when America was great. The R&D budget is gone, and the corporate labs are gone. Just 7 percent of American undergraduates study engineering, vs. one of three in China.
Our capacity to innovate won the Cold War. Russia’s perceived advantage in air defense lasted just nine years. In 1982, Israel destroyed 82 Russian-built Syrian warplanes in Operation Mole Cricket (also known as the Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot), with virtually no losses of its own. In 1973, six Israeli planes were lost attacking a single Syrian SAM installation. In 1982, the combination of suicide drones, look-down/shoot-down radar and AWAC control of the battlespace gave Israel a deadly advantage. Some of the technology was Israeli, but the backbone of the Israeli force was the F-15 equipped with look-down radar. That was the beginning of the end of the Cold War: if NATO controlled the skies, Russia could not hope to win a conventional war in Europe. The sclerotic Russian economy couldn’t keep up with the Americans.
But the speed with which America leapfrogged Russian air defense technology was remarkable. We changed the world in less than a decade.
I wrote last year in the Journal of American Affairs:
Such a victory would have been impossible without the new fast and light microchips that enabled the American-made fighters to carry sufficient onboard computing capacity for the new radar systems. The CMOS chips that powered the F-15’s lookdown radar (beginning in 1978) were manufactured for the first time only ten years earlier, and for entirely different reasons. Originally the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) commissioned RCA researchers to manufacture fast and light chips for weather analysis. In fact, the definitive inventions of late twentieth century technology—laser-powered optical networks, fast and light integrated circuits, and the Internet—all came out of Defense Department projects whose originators could not have foreseen the impact of the new discoveries.
The “Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot” of 1982, as it came to be called, marked a decisive shift in the Cold War. In less than a decade, the American military (with some contributions from Israel) reversed what had appeared to be a decisive Soviet advantage in air combat and established overwhelming American superiority. By 1984, as Deputy Secretary Work commented, “Soviet Marshall Ogarkov famously said that reconnaissance strike complexes, the Soviet and Russian term for battle networks, could achieve the same destructive effects as low-yield tactical nuclear weapons.”2 The Soviet military concluded that it could never catch up to American avionics. That and the threat of the Strategic Defense Initiative persuaded Russia’s leaders that America would win a conventional war, which set in motion the collapse of Communism.
Yes, Pope John Paul II of blessed memory and the heroic Poles fought Communism. Yes, the United States used the Helsinki accords on human rights to embarrass the brutal Moscow regime. Yes, we fought Russian proxies from Nicaragua to Afghanistan. That was all well and good, but none of it added up to victory. Victory comes when the enemy knows that you will grind him into paste on the sidewalk after breaking every bone in his body. The Russian generals and their Communist Party masters knew we had them by the throat after the Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot, and Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative told them that we would continue to move ahead of them, farther and faster.
President Trump recognizes the Chinese threat, unlike his predecessors. But tariffs won’t accomplish what the president wants to accomplish. I support him and want him to succeed, but he’s using the wrong tools. It is well and good to protect our existing technology from Chinese predation. But the problem is NOT what the Chinese are doing, but we are AREN’T doing.
- We need to tilt incentives to STEM education, just as the Eisenhower Administration did after Sputnik in 1957.
- We need to focus resources on game-changing technologies (quantum computing, materials science, missile defense, anti-submarine warfare, semiconductor manufacturing, and others). We can complain all day about China subsidizing its industries but we can’t really stop it from happening. What we CAN do is target innovations that will ruin China’s massive investments in existing technologies.
- We need to FORCE the whole supply chain for sensitive defense technologies onshore. That will cost plenty. But national security is like J.P. Morgan’s proverbial yacht: If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.
- We need to persuade the biggest corporations to restore their R&D capacity, by a combination of sticks and carrots. That may not be good for their stock price in the short term. But General Electric is a horrible example of what happens when “shareholder value” through financial engineering replaces fundamentals.
One of my favorite films is 1999’s “October Sky,” about a group of West Virginia coal-town kids who built rockets right after the Sputnik shock. It’s based on a true story. One of them went on to become a NASA scientist. That’s when America was great — when miners’ kids aspired to be rocket scientists. Now we seem to aspire to more coal mining jobs. I’m all for a robust coal industry, and I support the president’s efforts to revive the sector. But that’s not American greatness. American greatness is expressed first of all by our capacity to innovate. On that, we will stand or fall.