The Buzz

How World War III Could Start (Think Syria, the Baltics or the South China Sea)

If humanity ever suffers a Third World War, chances are good it will start in some locale distant from the United States like the Baltic or South China Seas, the Persian Gulf, or Syria, where Washington and its rivals play daily games of “chicken” with lethal air and naval forces.

Far from enhancing U.S. security, the aggressive deployment of our armed forces in these and other hot spots around the world may be putting our very survival at risk by continuously testing and prodding other military powers. What our military gains from forward deployment, training exercises, and better intelligence may be more than offset by the unnecessary provocation of hostile responses that could escalate into uncontrollable conflicts.

Baiting the Bear

The most obvious example is Russia, which top Pentagon officials like to remind us “poses an existential threat to the United States” by virtue of its huge nuclear arsenal. So it was discomforting to learn a few days ago that U.S. and Russian warplanes are experiencing near misses in Syrian airspace “once every 10 days-ish,” in the words of Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeff Harrigian. The risk of war with Russia would skyrocket, of course, if the United States were to try to impose a “no-fly-zone.”

Potentially deadly incidents aren’t confined to Syria. In September, a Russian fighter jet flew within 10 feet of a U.S. Navy spy plane over the Black Sea. Six months ago, reacting to an increase in NATO war games and maneuvers, Russian aircraft buzzed a U.S. Navy destroyer conducting exercises with Poland in the Baltic Sea. Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the United States would have had every right to shoot down the plane. The Russians, noting that the exercises were taking place near the base of their Baltic Fleet, insisted they were simply exercising their rights to fly.

A couple of days later, a Russian jet intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance plane in the same region. A Pentagon spokesman condemned the Russian pilot’s “aggressive” and “unprofessional” maneuvers that could “escalate tensions between countries.” A Russian spokesman said its air defense forces had reacted prudently to “an unidentified target rapidly approaching the Russian border.”

Indignant over Iran

In the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy recorded 19 dangerous confrontations with Iranian vessels during the first half of this year, up from 10 in the same period in 2015. Another 11 such confrontations reportedly took place this July and August.

The most notorious incident, of course, occurred this January, when Iranian gunboats detained 10 U.S. Navy sailors for a day after they strayed into Iranian waters. The Obama administration, which had recently negotiated a nuclear accord with Iran, chose not to inflate the incident. In contrast, a trivial engagement between a U.S. Navy vessel and unarmed Iranian patrol boats in January 2008 fired up President Bush and came perilously close to triggering another Tonkin Gulf Incident.

Although Iran is not a nuclear power, it could be a regional menace if drawn into war, with ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel and Saudi oil fields, and mines that could make the Persian Gulf virtually impassable.

Playing Chicken with China

U.S. air and naval forces also engage in dangerous confrontations every few months with China, a nuclear state and the world’s fastest-rising conventional military power.

In late October, China’s Defense Ministry protested an allegedly “illegal” and “intentionally provocative” patrol by the guided missile destroyer USS Decatur, which was sailing close to the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea to protest Chinese maritime claims. The Chinese vowed to increase their own air and maritime patrols to “resolutely defend national sovereignty and security.”

This summer, in the space of less than a month, Chinese fighter jets twice intercepted U.S. Air Force RC-135 spy planes off of China’s coast. The Pentagon decried the Chinese response as dangerously “unsafe,” while the Chinese complained that U.S. insistence on carrying out “close reconnaissance activities against China . . . severely undermines China’s maritime security.”