Lessons from “The Bedford Incident”

The Bedford Incident, a 1962 novel and 1965 movie, is a parable of great-power risk, required reading/viewing for 21st Century political leaders.

The Bedford Incident presents the fictional story of an intense game of cat-and-mouse between American and Soviet naval vessels off the coast of Greenland.  The cat is a high-tech American destroyer – the Bedford.  The mouse is an unnamed and unseen nuclear-armed Soviet submarine that must surface periodically to refresh its air supply.  The goal of the American destroyer is to compel that resurfacing in the presence of the Bedford, both to gain intelligence and to humble the Soviets … and thereby evidence the superiority of America.  The game ends badly for both …, in the process raising the specter of the type of event that might trigger a World War.

The Bedford Incident is a harshly accurate portrayal of U.S.-Soviet Cold War realities that threatened global peace 60 years ago.  The chilling impact of the movie arises not merely from an excellent script and high-quality acting, but by its representation of what, at that time, was a widely-shared fear – that for irrational and uncontrollable reasons an everyday Cold War encounter could suddenly and unpredictably spiral out of control …, without the ability of an American President or a Soviet Premier to intercede.  It illustrated the dangers from standardized military maneuvers, how a poor decision by a single soldier, sailor, or pilot – each of whom necessarily has a finger on a trigger – that might naturally arise from a high-intensity encounter, could result in an unanticipated and disastrous outcome.  That’s the risk that great powers bring to global geopolitics – that Cold Wars might unexpectedly become Hot Wars …, a reality of the current escalating Cold War II between the U.S. and China.

The military tensions between America and the Soviet Union played themselves out on a broad global stage.  Because the Soviets based their submarines in Murmansk and Archangel, they necessarily entered the Atlantic Ocean through the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap, allowing American warships to monitor and track their routes.  Tracking was tactically necessary because each Soviet nuclear submarine carried between 12 and 16 ICBMs capable of destroying 12 to 16 American cities.  Once loose in the Atlantic, that capability meant that it would take only minutes for millions of Americans to be vaporized.  This created unceasing pressure on America’s military a pressing need for active protection of America’s homeland – in The Bedford Incident by its navy.  That burden was felt by every sailor on the Bedford …, and especially by its captain, who was obsessed with gaining intelligence about Soviet submarine operations in order to deny the Soviet Union any possible advantage in the event of conflict and, importantly, to be able to strike first at any hint of open hostilities.

The plot of The Bedford Incident was based on actual U.S.-Soviet encounters, several that occurred during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when Soviet submarines were forced to surface during the blockade of Cuba through an aggressive “hold-down” tactic and, more significantly, shortly before the Crisis when a Soviet submarine was forced to surface in the Atlantic Ocean after it failed to follow instructions from an American destroyer.  The destroyer compelled the submarine to surface by dropping a series of training depth charges which, as historians later learned, the captain of the Soviet submarine – which was armed with a nuclear torpedo – interpreted as the opening salvo in WWIII.  The Soviet captain sought permission for a nuclear launch but, by chance, his submarine was then hosting the flotilla commander who decided otherwise.  That happy circumstance apparently is the reason why, in 1962, the world avoided a nuclear exchange.

A seemingly minor 21st Century brush with Chinese-American great power conflict occurred on April 1, 2001 – the Hainan Island Incident –, where a U.S. spy plane collided in international airspace with a Chinese fighter jet, one of two Chinese interceptors that had been harassing the American plane.  The Chinese jet crashed and its pilot was lost, while the American plane was able to make an emergency landing in Hainan where its aircraft and crew were taken into custody …, and where Chinese authorities took possession of the aircraft’s classified material and technology.  In order to obtain the release of the American crew and, eventually, of the aircraft, the U.S. Ambassador to China was compelled to deliver a “letter or two sorries” which stated that the U.S. was “very sorry” for the death of the Chinese pilot and “very sorry” that the American aircraft had entered China’s airspace (for the emergency landing) without verbal clearance, thereby diffusing a challenging confrontation … during a period when U.S.-Chinese relations were comparatively warm and the U.S. was the undisputed global hegemon.  That dynamic has changed.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union waged Cold War I for 45 years.  It took a well-thought-out, costly, consistently-applied strategy to win that War.  China is a far different adversary.  It is not merely seeking to compete with the U.S. … militarily, economically, and politically.  Its goal is to be in a position to defeat it at all levels (as previously explored in “The Hegemon’s Handbook”).  On the military front, China has been building its army, navy, air force, satellite, nuclear and cyber forces specifically to counter American technology, alliances and weaponry.  As an example, China has invested more in hypersonic weapons’ technology than any other nation precisely so that it can neutralize America’s aircraft carrier forces.  From all reports, it now can do so.

For most of this Century, China has been pursuing a broadly-focused hegemonic strategy that has included aggressive territorial consolidation and expansion (in Tibet, Xinyang and Hong Kong), massive military and technological development (for the past six years as part of Made in China 2025), an ambitious frontier market-lending policy to build global influence, multi-country cultural and political education programming to promote Chinese values over Western ones, and a brilliantly strategic, commercially and tactically-driven multi-trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (discussed in “Red Storm Rising” and supplemented in “When is a Nation ‘At War’?”).  In addition to escalating border confrontations with India in 2020, China has deliberatively enhanced the islands it built in the East China and South China Seas in 2014.  In slowly doing so, it has turned the Western Pacific into a militarized Chinese protectorate, having built a “Great Wall of Sand” to buffer itself against American naval and air power.  This perimeter also enhances its ability to defend its aggressive territorial claims based on an historically-questionable expansive “nine-dash line.”  The contested area, parts of which are claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines and other countries, includes mineral and fishing rights as well as the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, the Scarborough Shoal and the Senkaku Islands.

Within China’s Western Pacific territorial claims also lies Taiwan.

Taiwan is the current focal point in the types of cat-and-mouse games described in The Bedford Incident …, which China is playing in and around the defensive gaps between Mainland China and the Great Wall of Sand.  In each instance, the cat in Cold War II is Chinese.  The mice are the Taiwanese, the Japanese, the Vietnamese … and the Americans – their warships, aircraft, and commercial vessels.  China has shown its claws in every strategic region of the globe and has made no attempt to disguise its Great Game goals, from its recent armed confrontations with India, its brutal treatment of Uighurs in Xinyang, its treaty-breaking take-over of Hong Kong, its sanctions-busting trading with Iran, Russia and North Korea, its securing of strategic facilities around the globe (including in Sri Lanka (providing it with a gateway to the Indian Ocean), Djibouti (past which almost one-third of the world’s shipping travels), Mombasa in Kenya, Bagamoyo in Tanzania, and Piraeus in Greece, as well as its investments in Italy and throughout South America), and its building railways and highways through the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor connecting China with the Gwadar Port Complex on the Arabian Sea and along the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor.

In late January, China meaningfully increased pressure on Taiwan, stating that any assertion by Taiwan of independence would “mean war,” the strongest language used by China to-date.  China’s spokesman added that the People’s Liberation Army had been directed to engage in military activities in the Taiwan Strait “to safeguard China’s national sovereignty and security,” noting that China’s armed forces were acting in “solemn response to external interference and provocations by ‘Taiwan independence’ forces.”

Wars don’t “just happen.”  They evolve.  There are preparations …, and evidence of China’s preparations are apparent … and dangerous.

China’s decision to up-the-ante on Taiwan may be an indication of an additional compelling motive.  A Taiwanese company, Taiwan Semiconductor Mfg. Co., Ltd., is one of only three major global chipmakers.  The others are Intel, an American company, and Samsung, a South Korean company.  The Chinese economy and China’s military depend on the importation of more than $300 billion of chips/year.  With an intensifying American economic and technology embargo, and with Taiwan a mere 110 miles off the coast of China, there is little doubt that China views Taiwan as both a technological and strategic imperative objective …, even, perhaps, as an imminent one.  China thus far has responded to America’s technology sanctions by making massive investments in its own chip manufacturing capabilities …, but that will take time.  That timetable could be accelerated should America attempt to tighten the chip embargo …, keeping in mind that the 1941 withholding by America of strategic resources needed by Japan led to Pearl Harbor.

As the captain of the Bedford pointed out, the unrelenting tension of Cold War frictions becomes a physical pain that can lead to misjudgments and catastrophic outcomes.  Tensions, frictions and pain in the Western Pacific are increasing.  Soviet submarines during Cold War I traveled 1,400 miles from their home ports to reach the North Atlantic, providing more-than-adequate warning to waiting American warships.  Taiwan is 1,700 miles from America’s nearest naval and air base at Guam.  That gives China an enormous military-strategic edge.  Both President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken recently reconfirmed America’s military commitment to Taiwan.  How far would America go to uphold that commitment?  And how far will China go in testing that commitment?   If China intends to militarily pursue Taiwanese annexation, America and China indeed may be Destined for War as Graham Allison and TLR have has warned.

China intends to draw a noose tighter and tighter around Taiwan.  Tensions therefore can only increase.  If it is denied essential technology, China may be provoked to take that technology by force, perhaps by blockading its recalcitrant, renegade province, or perhaps by direct military action.  The present stand-off, even without escalation, could all-too-easily spawn a Bedford Incident.  Tensions, and confrontations, are rising. The risks of a “Taiwan Strait Incident” are both scary … and self-evident.

Finally (from a good friend)

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