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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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On the edge of oblivion?

12 April 2018

As I type this, the world stands on the edge of oblivion, teetering precariously on the ledge at the top of a deep abyss.

Okay, I over-dramatise, but just a little.

I'm talking about the conflict in Syria, where US President Donald Trump has just come out warning Russia that they can expect a barrage of missiles to rain down on their Syrian presence in response to alleged gas attacks against civilian targets.

In reply, Russia has said it will shoot down the missiles and attack any craft from which they are launched.

Sounds like a powder-keg set to explode doesn't it?

Yet somehow, I doubt we'll see either side honour its threats.

Why not? Surely not to follow-through on such bold and clear threats would be seen as a back-down by either side.

Well I'm picking that neither the USA nor Russia can afford to really display the full capabilities (or lack thereof) of their offensive and defensive capabilities.

One of the biggest aids to maintaining peace between the superpowers right now is a mutual doubt over the military capabilities of the other.

Russia claims to have super-weapons that can shoot down any incoming missiles and to have missiles of its own that can evade US defenses with ease.

The USA claims to have superiority in the area of airborne weapons systems which would allow it to attack any target it wants with unstoppable might.

The perception may be significantly different to the reality and I doubt that either side would want to risk having their perceived "might" destroyed by a demonstration which could well prove that these claims are more hype than reality.

Imagine if Trump launches 100 cruise missiles against Syrian targets -- and none of them get through.

Likewise, imagine if Russia engages the USA in a firefight and gets roundly thrashed.

Neither side can afford to end up with that much egg on their face so they will be incredibly reluctant to put their claims of technological superiority to the test. Far better to retain the aura of invincibility than to demonstrate a weakness or fallibility.

So for this reason, Trump will continue rattling his sabre and Putin will continue goading him to "have a go and see what happens".

Meanwhile, US military defense contractors are probably excited and nervous at the same time. On the one hand, they'd win big if there was a significant engagement in the Middle East -- because missiles and bullets can only be used once so they could expect huge orders for replacements within a relatively short time.

On the other hand however, if their very sophisticated and expensive weapons systems failed to perform as promised and were eclipsed by Russia's equivalents, their future as preferred suppliers to the US government would be placed in jeopardy.

Anyone care to place bets as to what will happen in the next few months?

Will, as I predict, Trump fail to follow-through on his threats and promises -- or at least simply rely on the USA's allies to launch an attack, thus carefully ensuring that the might and reputation of the USA's technology isn't put on the line? Or will Trump attack and Putin hold back from any retaliatory responses for fear that his claims of superweapons will be exposed as nothing more than hype and bluster?

It's really not much different to those playground squabbles we used to engage in when at primary school isn't it? Except that Trump and Putin are playing with billions of dollars of other people's money and real human lives.

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