Operation Pike: How a Crazy Plan to Bomb Russia Almost Lost World War II

The Buzz

Nazi Germany was defeated largely – though not solely – by the Soviet Union.

But what if Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had been allies instead of enemies? What if America, Britain, and their allies had faced a massive Red Army backed by the military prowess and technological sophistication of the Luftwaffe, Nazi panzers and U-boats?

That apocalyptic vision of a new Dark Ages almost happened. In the early days of World War II, Britain and France planned to bomb Russian oil fields. The goal was to impede Hitler. The outcome would probably have helped Hitler win the war.

The idea was foolish, but not irrational. By late 1939, Britain and France were convinced that Germany and Russia were already friends. Stalin had tried hard to form an anti-Nazi coalition before the war, only to meet such resistance and hesitation that he became convinced that the capitalists were plotting to embroil Germany and Russia in a mutually exhausting war while the West stayed on the sidelines.

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While London and Paris dithered over whether to ally with the Communists, Berlin had no such hesitation: on August 23, 1939, Germany and Russia signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Russia gained Eastern Poland and the Baltic states, a prospective breathing space to build up its military strength, and the prospect that Germany and the Western powers would exhaust themselves while Russia bided its strength.

Yet the real winner was the Fuhrer. The treaty left the Third Reich free to gobble up Poland and Western Europe without fear of a second front in the East. Just as important, the Soviets agreed to supply vital raw materials – especially oil – to the Third Reich, keeping the German war economy running and breaching the Allied naval blockade that had proved so decisive in World War I.

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In Allied eyes, the Soviet Union had changed from Germany's nemesis into Germany's ally. So why not strike the Soviet Union and kill two birds with one stone? Perhaps there was also the frustration of the sitzkrieg, as Allied armies sat impotently behind the Maginot Line while the Germans overran Poland and Scandinavia. Bombing Russia must have seemed easier than confronting the German army on the battlefield.

Thus was born Operation Pike. Flying from Allied bases in Iran and Syria, as well as neutral but anti-Soviet Turkey, more than a hundred British and French bombers would continuously attack Soviet oil fields in the Caucuses in a night strategic bombing campaign. This was more than idle planning. Unmarked British reconnaissance planes flying from Iraqi airfields actually photographed oil installations at Baku and Batumi in March 1940.

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Allied air planners were confident this would be a mighty blow. We know now that it would have been a joke. British night bombing efforts in 1940-41 was so inaccurate – only a handful bombs landed within miles of their target – that the Germans hardly noticed them. Even in 1944, thousand-bomber Royal Air Force night raids, supported by the most sophisticated radar and navigation technology of the time, drop their loans on entire German cities because they could not destroy pinpoint targets.

As the Germans proved, bomb-damaged facilities could be restored with remarkable speed. A 1944 Lancaster bomber carried 7 tons of bombs; a 1940 Blenheim only half a ton. Only the deepest hubris – which indeed afflicted strategic bombing enthusiasts throughout World War II – could make anyone believe that a hundred primitive early-war bombers could devastate the Soviet oil industry.

Patrick Osborn also points out, in his book "Operation Pike," that Allied intelligence concluded that Russian oil only comprised a small part of Germany's fuel supply (much of which actually came from Romania). "The important thing here is not the accuracy of the British intelligence reports but that British and French leaders alike were willing to overlook them in order to pursue their idea of attacking the USSR in order to bring under the feet of Germany: the principle of killing two birds with one stone' taken to ridiculous links."

In any event, fortune, or rather misfortune, saved the world. In May 1940, German panzers smashed through the Low Countries and into France. Six weeks later, France surrendered. Operation Pike was not to be. Except that, as Hitler's armies appeared on the verge of seizing the Caucasus oil fields in 1941-42, Britain still made plans to bomb the oil facilities should the Soviets fail to demolish them before they were captured. Interestingly, the British seemed willing to do battle with Soviet fighters to accomplish this goal.

Ironically, as Osborn notes, instead of harming Germany, the bombing would have weakened the Soviet regime that was the bulwark of the coalition fighting the Nazis. "Someone would have had to have filled the power vacuum if Stalin's government collapsed; that in all likelihood would have been Hitler."

However, the real what-if would have come in the summer of 1940. If Operation Pike had been launched prior to the surrender of France, then the British government would have faced the prospect of fighting a Nazi-Soviet alliance, with no French ally and the United States still withdrawn behind its walls of isolationism. Some British leaders, such as Lord Halifax, had favored making some kind of peace deal with Hitler. If Britain had also been at war with the Soviet Union, perhaps not even diehard Winston Churchill would have had the stomach to continue fighting what would have seemed like a hopeless war.

Of course, even if Allied bombing had brought Hitler and Stalin together, the romance would have been doomed. Two predators greedily devouring other prey would inevitably have turned on each other. Nonetheless, Operation Pike might have changed the history of the world.

Luckily, the world never had a chance to find out.

Michael Peck, a frequent contributor to TNI, is a defense and historical writer based in Oregon. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, WarIsBoring and many other fine publications. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

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Why Truth is the First Casualty of War

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about lying. Not the Ben Carson (“I was offered a full scholarship to West Point”) or the Hillary Clinton (“I did not send nor receive classified material” via my private email server) variety. I’m more concerned about the everyday lying that is necessary to sustain public support for U.S. foreign policies. There are several good books that study this phenomenon, including, most recently, John M. Schuessler’s Deceit on the Road to War.

The worst forms of lying misconstrue both the costs and benefits of a particular policy. As the most dominant great power in modern history, the United States has enormous latitude over when and whether to intervene abroad. But precisely because Americans are already so secure, mobilizing them to undertake foreign wars is difficult.

Difficult, but not impossible. Americans were willing to expend considerable effort to dislodge Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II. And we waged these wars in league with some truly reprehensible characters (Exhibit A: Uncle Joe Stalin). Most Americans were willing to tolerate alliances with brutal tyrants because the alternatives were far worse, and because the security stakes—for the United States—were fairly clear.

Most such cases are not nearly as clear cut, as my colleagues Ted Galen Carpenter and Malou Innocent document in great detail here; and as Ted wrote in the current issue of The National Interest. If Americans believe that we are merely trading one petty despot for another, with only a marginal improvement for U.S. security or the cause of human rights, they are ambivalent.

So U.S. leaders obfuscate. They shade the truth. They lie. They exaggerate the harm that might come if petty despot A stays in power. He’s the next Hitler, they say. He’s the next Mao. Therefore, we must help petty despot B.

And then they lie about the nature of petty despot B. He’s not so bad. He’s a democrat. He’s our friend. He has the best interests of his people at heart. Sometimes, U.S. officials believe their own lies.

If this sounds at all familiar, it should. This is relevant to a few recent stories coming out of Afghanistan. Human rights groups implored the Afghan government to investigate the stoning of an alleged adulterer after a video of the incident was posted online. Afghan president Ashraf Ghani deplored the “heinous act” and then his government appointed a delegation that included, as the New York Times reported, “a prominent, pro-government mullah who believes the stoning and flogging of adulterers is perfectly justified” to carry out the investigation.

As sickening as the stoning story is, it could be characterized as an isolated incident (though it probably isn’t). Back in September, the New York Times published a long story documenting how our Afghan allies regularly brutalize young boys, and how U.S. troops had been ordered to look the other way.

I had been aware of this for years, and was frankly surprised that so many people were not. I remembered an incident from a number of years ago, when I and two colleagues from Cato met with a small group of congressmen. The subject of Bacha Bazi came up, and I recall that one congressman – I honestly don’t remember his name or where he was from – was quite shocked. Our Afghan “allies” engage in such behavior, and U.S. military personnel were aware of it? Surely, I must be mistaken, he said. What is the true nature of these relationships between these men and these boys?

I tried to explain without going into graphic detail. I settled on the term “abuse” and, when that didn’t resolve his puzzlement, “sexual abuse.” I refrained from using the terms “rape” or “sexual slavery.” Eventually, he got the picture. And, at that moment, this true believer in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan began to become a skeptic.

Truth, famously, is the first casualty of war. But if the true nature of our allies were more widely publicized, and if the news media scrutinized government officials’ claims that the security of some clan or faction in a distant land was synonymous with our own, the American people might become more skeptical of the other stories that the U.S. government tells about our foreign policies.

At least that’s my hope. A little skepticism is a good thing.

Christopher A. Preble is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Image: Flickr/Afghanistan Matters/John Scott Rafoss

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Confirmed: Russia Just Sold 24 Lethal Su-35 Fighters to China

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Russia has reached an agreement with the People’s Republic of China to supply the nascent Asian superpower with twenty-four Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E fighters. The two countries have been discussing the sale of the powerful Russian-built jet since at least 2011.

“Long negotiations for the supply of Su-35 in China are completed, we signed a contract,” Sergei Chemezov general director of Rostec—which is a Russian government entity that helps facilitate Moscow’s defense exports—told the Russian daily Kommersant.

According to Kommersant’s Russian government sources, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force will receive twenty-four jets for a total of $2 billion dollars. The unit price for each Su-35S is expected to be $83 million. “China officially became the first foreign customer of the Su-35 is unprecedented in the history of the contract deliveries of combat aircraft,” a Russian defense source told the newspaper.

It has taken Russia and China a long time to reach this deal. A preliminary agreement had been reached in 2012, but Russia and China have not taken any concrete steps on finalizing an accord for the new jets until now. Much of the delay can be attributed to haggling over the price for the jets, but the Chinese have also insisted that the Russians customize the jet’s cockpit for their particular requirement. That might include Chinese language displays.

Meanwhile, the Russians had initially insisted that the Chinese buy a minimum of forty-eight jets because of fears that Beijing simply wanted to harvest the Su-35 for its technology—particularly, the radar, electronic warfare systems and engines. If Kommersant’s sources are correct, the new deal does not allow for China to license build the Su-35, instead the PLAAF will receive jets manufactured in Russia. Of course, that won’t stop the Chinese from picking the Su-35 clean for technology—it’s just makes the process more difficult.

Ultimately, Russia ended up signing a deal to sell only twenty-four Su-35s to China. Moscow’s hand has been weakened by European sanctions and low oil prices, which means that Russia might have needed the money. The Su-35 deal comes on the heels of several other high-profile Chinese purchases including one last year for the powerful S-400 surface-to-air integrated air defense system worth about $1.9 billion. Once the S-400 is operational, the weapon would allow China to engage Taiwanese aircraft taking off from almost anywhere in on the island from across the strait.

The addition of the Su-35 to the PLAAF arsenal means that China will be about to learn more about its AL-41F1S engine, Ibris-E radar and electronic warfare suite. The Chinese have made huge technological advances, but Russian military technology—particularly for jet engines is light-years ahead. Once the Su-35 is delivered, the jets are almost certainly to be reverse engineered and copied. One can initially expect advanced derivatives of the J-11 Flanker clone, but an entirely new Su-35 clone might follow not long afterwards.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

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Russia's 'Carrier Killer' (Now ISIS Killer): The Tu-22M3 Supersonic Bomber

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The Russian air force conducted another massive strategic bomber raid on Daesh targets in Syria yesterday.

As before, the Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95MS bombers played a prominent role, however, the supersonic Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers conducted the majority of the attacks. “A squadron of Tu-22M3 long-range bombers made airstrikes against 6 ISIS facilities in the provinces of Raqqah and Deir-ez-Zor. They engaged depots with weapons and ammunition, mass concentrations of military hardware, training camps and workshops producing explosives,” reads a statement from the Russian defense ministry.

That statement was later amended to add: “Just a few minutes ago a squadron of Tu-22M3 long-range bombers has made the second massive airstrike against 6 militants’ facilities engaging a communications centre, ISIS ammunition depot, a small factory producing explosives and car bombs, as well as a terrorist training base.”

While videos released by the Russian defense ministry shows that the aircraft were dropping OFAB 250-270 free-fall bombs, the aircraft were originally designed to strike U.S. Navy carrier strike groups in the Atlantic and high value NATO targets in Europe if the Cold War ever turned hot. There is no direct U.S. equivalent to the Tu-22M—the closest is perhaps the Rockwell International B-1B Lancer, which has been de-nuclearized in the post-Cold War-era, has a somewhat similar role. Another rough analogue might be the now retired FB-111 strategic bomber variant of the F-111 Aardvark.

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The Tu-22M3 is the last version of the Backfire that is still in service. The aircraft was sold to the Soviet leadership as a derivative of the older and much less sophisticated Tu-22 Blinder—but the Tu-22M is a completely new design that shares nothing with it predecessor except for its designation. The Soviet military basically had to trick the Kremlin into funding the Backfire the same way the U.S. Navy convinced the U.S. Congress that the almost entirely new F/A-18E/F Super Hornet airframe was a derivative of the original F/A-18.

According to the Tupolev design bureau, the first Tu-22M0 prototype was completed in 1969. It made its first flight that year on August 30 with V.P. Borisov as the pilot in command. The first prototype of the current M3 version of the jet first flew on June 20 1977 with production starting in 1978. The last version of the Tu-22M3 became operational in March 1989 just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to Tupolev. The Kazan Aircraft Production Association built a total of roughly 500 different Backfire variants.

When the Backfire was introduced into service, it caused a lot of concern within the U.S. Navy because it is designed to carry a massive load of long-range anti-ship cruise missiles. The jet is fast—it has a top speed of Mach 1.88 and will easily sustain Mach 1.6 for extended periods—and carries 53,000lbs of weapons. Typically, that meant the Tu-22M3 could be carrying ten Raduga Kh-15 anti-ship missiles or three massive Raduga Kh-22 missiles—both of which can hit speeds of around Mach 5.0. The 13,000lbs Kh-22 was especially feared because of its long 320 nautical mile range and 2,200lbs shaped-charge warhead that could cripple an aircraft carrier with a single blow.

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But it also carries conventional free-fall bombs—as many as seventy FAB-250-class weapons or eight FAB-1500-class weapons. A Russian ministry of defense video indicates that the Tu-22M3 dropped OFAB-250-270 bombs—basically 551lbs of blast fragmentation weapons—on Syria.  Dunarit—which manufactures the OFAB-250-270—helpfully points out the weapon “is intended for destruction of military-industrial sites, railway junctions, field facilities and personnel in open terrain as well as in light armoured vehicles and trucks on the march or during attack within the main concentration perimeter.”

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The Tu-22M3 will eventually be replaced in Russian service by the PAK-DA or potentially even the Tu-160M2—which Moscow has stated will be reentering production in 2023. But that might not be the end of the road for the Backfire. There have been persistent rumors that China wants to buy the aircraft as part of its anti-access/area denial strategy—so it’s not inconceivable that we might see Chinese Backfires one day. Stay tuned…

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image: Creative Commons. 

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Is War Between China and India Possible?

The Buzz

As I was researching and writing the latest Contingency Planning Memorandum for CFR’s Center for Preventive Action, “Armed Confrontation Between China and India,” one of my top priorities was to avoid overstating the probability of the contingency. Throughout most of my conversations with Indian, Chinese, and U.S. policy analysts, I found a striking consensus about the relative stability between these two giant Asian neighbors. This was reassuring, but also slightly surprising given the lingering suspicions and growing competition between New Delhi and Beijing.

Then I started reading a new book by Bharat Karnad, Why India Is Not a Great Power (Yet), and quickly observed that nearly all of the avenues by which I thought a China-India conflict might conceivably emerge (land border skirmish, Tibetan protests, India-Pakistan standoff, and maritime disputes) were also areas where Karnad believes India should pursue far more aggressive policies. The one exception is Pakistan, where Karnad suggests India should principally deploy economic incentives to overcome longstanding hostilities (an approach he recommends for all of India’s smaller neighbors).

Karnad, a professor of National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, is unusually strident in his call for India to play an opportunistic power-balancing role in Asia without signing up to either Washington or Beijing’s agenda. He expects that India will never find the United States to be a reliable strategic partner and that China will inevitably represent India’s chief security threat. To chart its own path, India will need to play a more opportunistic and reckless game quite unlike anything we have seen in its history since independence.

Karnad’s prescriptions go well beyond garden variety calls for “nonalignment” or greater Indian “strategic autonomy.” He proposes that India needs to take provocative measures if it wants to be taken seriously on the world stage, and in particular, to “strategically discomfit” China. To these ends, he argues for steps such as mining the Himalayan passes between India and China with atomic demolition munitions, arming China’s neighbors like Vietnam not only with Brahmos cruise missiles but nuclear weapons, and actively bankrolling and assisting an armed uprising in Tibet. Each of these steps would undoubtedly make an armed India-China confrontation more likely and more dangerous.

Quite unlike Karnad, my Contingency Planning Memo assumes that the U.S.-India partnership holds significant strategic value to both sides. As a consequence, I argue that Washington should stand by New Delhi’s side in the unlikely event of an armed confrontation between India and China, even at the risk of heightened U.S. tensions with China. To be clear, however, I also assume that India will not unilaterally pursue the sorts of policies that Karnad advocates and I suggest that Washington’s interest in backing India should apply only to defensive security measures.

These competing perspectives are worth considering because India has important strategic choices to make as its material power grows. I suspect that if India becomes more confident in its partnership with the United States, it will be less likely to pursue risky foreign policy positions. Karnad’s India, on the other hand, with growing power and ambition but deeply insecure about its relations with Washington and convinced of the China threat, would be far more likely to emerge as a dangerous new wild card in the international system.

Daniel Markey is adjunct senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Senior Research Professor and Academic Director of the Global Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

This piece appeared in CFR’s blog Asia Unbound here. For more on preventing armed confrontation between China and India, please see CFR’s recent Contingency Planning Memorandum here.

Image: Wikicommons. 

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