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The Delusions of Deterrence

Strategic nuclear forces, as Weinberger has repeatedly insisted, account directly for only a small share—less than 15 percent—of total defense spending. The basis for such calculations is not made explicit: to the budget for “strategic forces” themselves must be added some (substantial) share of spending on “intelligence and communications” and research and development, not to mention the $6.8 billion that the Department of Energy will spend on its nuclear defense programs in 1984.

Tactical nuclear forces add more to the nuclear bill, plus “dual-purpose” (“conventional” nuclear) weapons and the soldiers, civilians, and supplies required to operate them. To the extent that all US or NATO forces are “governed by a single coherent policy” and a policy which in its operational planning, at least in Europe, relies on first or early use of nuclear weapons, the effort to disentangle “nuclear” and “general purpose” costs is inevitably a futile exercise.

Cutting nuclear weapons procurement—the B-1 bomber or even the MX missile—is not an instant remedy for balancing the 1985 federal budget, or for reducing the growth of defense spending below 7 percent a year. These useless and dangerous weapons should be abandoned because they reduce national and international security. But nuclear deterrence policies and nuclear “investment” determine the entire growth of the defense effort and of the “threat” that defines it. In this sense, they have been and remain the prime source of the unprecedentedly expensive peacetime mobilization that has characterized both military blocs since the beginning of the deterrent epoch.


The Reagan administration’s efforts are spiritual as well as material. Reagan’s thinkers have provided one major addition to nuclear doctrine, and in particular to the rehabilitation of nuclear weapons. Like their predecessors, they believe that nuclear weapons are useful for preventing war, in the twilight between peace and war of deterrence. They believe that nuclear weapons are useful in time of war; in this, too, they are part of the substantial history of American security policy from the early 1950s on. But they extend their conviction even further. Nuclear weapons, according to the Reagan doctrine, are useful instruments of national policy in time of peace.

The threat of political coercion is infinitely more important than the threat of nuclear war”: such was the opinion, expressed at a private lecture a year ago, of one of the creators of the Reagan administration’s nuclear weapons policy. When I heard this extraordinary pronouncement, I took it as some kind of aberration, colorful talk for unconvinced listeners. But Weinberger’s report shows that there is indeed a new orthodoxy of nuclear coercion.

The deterrent strength of the Atlantic Alliance is increasingly threatened,” Weinberger writes, “offering opportunities for Soviet coercion in the event of crisis.” This constitutes a major challenge for the United States. “We need to support our allies and friends against the coercive threat of unused military strength, the ‘shadow’ of military power that can be used implicitly or explicitly to intimidate.”

The prospect of Soviet coercion of Western Europe is apparently the ultimate justification for the Reagan policy there: SS-20 and other missiles “could give the Soviet Union meaningful coercive power in peace or in a crisis.” The concept of “meaningful coercive power” is dependent on that of enhanced deterrence. For the opportunities for coercion arise from imperfections of “deterrent strength,” from discontinuities in one or more of the seven dimensions of deterrence. Weinberger makes this explicit elsewhere in his discussion of intermediate-range missiles: “The Soviet buildup led to concern throughout the NATO alliance that a perceived gap had been created in NATO’s spectrum of nuclear deterrence”—a window of coercive opportunity.

The American obsession with coercion is not entirely new. John Kennedy, as noted earlier, considered it irrelevant whether Soviet victory came “through massive attack, through the threat of such attack, or through nibbling away at our security.” But the Reagan administration’s certainty that nuclear weapons confer useful political power—in war, in peace, or in the continuing crisis of deterrence—is a profoundly disturbing development. What makes it even more dangerous is the suggestion that coercive opportunities must be counted in the same Stygian calculus as weapons systems, throw-weight, and military investment in dollar/ruble comparisons. The Reagan adviser I quoted earlier distinguished between “retaliatory” and “coercive” weapons: bombers, he said, “can be recalled,” while “sea-launched ballistic missiles are less accurate,” and therefore, for the moment, merely retaliatory. The current objectives of military exertion—accuracy and control—are thus themselves the currency of coercion: the instruments of success not only in war (“restoring the peace”) but in peace as well.

Weinberger denies that the US itself has or has had coercive objectives: after World War II, he recalls, “the United States made clear that it would use its atomic weapons not for conquest or coercion” but for deterrence. He indeed contrasts the US policy of deterrence and defense to the “opposing coercive ‘offensive’ strategy” of the enemy. It is difficult to judge whether the United States was, in fact, tempted by “coercion” during the long years when, in Weinberger’s words, “Soviet nuclear forces were clearly inferior to our own”; or whether the nostalgic, bellicose old men of the present US government look back sentimentally to the days when the US threatened or considered the use of nuclear weapons “over” Korea, over Dien Bien Phu, over Quemoy and Matsu.

I suspect that the obsessive fears of the Reagan administration may indeed be deeply influenced by another, later episode: by Kennedy’s “victory” over Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis. But it makes little practical difference whether Reagan’s pugilists (and Andropov’s) believe that Kennedy won, or that he won because his nuclear weapons were 60 percent more destructive, 70 percent more expensive, or 80 percent more accurate than Khrushchev’s.

One of the most persistent characteristics of the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union is that the “opposing strategies” of the two enemies have come ever more to resemble each other. The Soviet Union, as is well known, has emulated most of the proud successes of American military science, notably in building accurate missiles. Now it is the policy of the United States to preserve its credibility by emulating the Soviet Union in each dimension of “deterrent strength.” The Soviet Union may have built more accurate missiles and more survivable command posts because it wishes to be able to coerce. But if it has them, the United States must have them too: the menu is the same in the end.


The idea of coercion dominates even the most immediate and momentous of the administration’s security concerns, the deployment of intermediate- or medium-range nuclear missiles (INF) in Europe. The reborn usefulness of nuclear weapons, it appears, can transform all possible contingencies, all possible wars.

European Wars: The Theater. Pershing IIs and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs)—the INF forces that NATO may deploy this year in Western Europe—are the purest embodiments of enhanced or continuous deterrence. Their purpose is to close a “perceived gap” in NATO’s “spectrum of nuclear deterrence” and to prevent Soviet coercion. The spectrum in fact extends even to conventional forces, as Weinberger explains. “All of our nuclear forces are governed by a single coherent policy that governs the linkage among our conventional, non-strategic nuclear, and strategic nuclear forces. There is no separate US policy for non-strategic nuclear weapons.”

The new missiles have a remarkable place in the geometry of comprehensive deterrence. They complete the continuum of political relationships (deterring attacks against allies); of regional completeness; of individual weapons systems (at the moment, NATO’s arsenal “contains no land-based longer-range INF [LRINF] missiles”); even of morality, since the missiles are designed for “limiting collateral damage.” They are thus of inestimable usefulness in the quest for credibility, endlessly and enticingly beyond one’s reach.

The new missiles are refined examples of the coexistence of deterrent and warfighting “capability” in single gadgets. “By virtue of their high accuracy,” both missiles can attack “hard targets”; the Pershing IIs also have “the capability to strike time-urgent targets,” presumably missile silos, bomber airfields, and command and control centers. Even the fiscal year 1984 request for money to build “family housing” at cruise missile sites is a matter of will: “These support facilities constitute an essential component of the US commitment, since they clearly demonstrate our resolve to deploy GLCM on a permanent basis should it be necessary…”22

Weinberger’s analysis does not inspire much optimism about present negotiations over such weapons. His emphasis on intermediate nuclear weapons as “linkage” in a “single coherent policy”—on the new missiles themselves as filling a “gap” in that coherence—suggests the folly of negotiating separately on intermediate and strategic nuclear weapons. It also casts doubt on Reagan and Bush’s claim that the “zero option” has special moral status because it would eliminate a particular (if narrowly defined) class of weapons from the face of the earth.

But Weinberger above all conveys no hesitation whether the missiles will in fact be deployed. The NATO “double decision” of 1979—which held out the prospect that deployment would not be necessary if arms negotiations succeeded—is presented as “authorizing deployment of the Pershing II and GLCM, in concert with arms control initiatives.” The 1984 “United States Military Posture” statement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff actually states that “in 1979, the decision was made [for] deployment of 572 missiles in five European countries,” and adds that “all weapons will be in place by late 1988.”23 Weinberger’s account of the negotiations themselves could hardly be more stark: the US is moving ahead with plans to deploy “because the Soviets have not yet agreed to our proposal to ban all US and Soviet nuclear missile systems of this range.”24

The Reagan administration seems bound to produce a modified version of its proposal, as urged by virtually all European leaders. But there is little evidence in Weinberger’s report or in the administration’s actions to suggest that any subsequent negotiations will prevent the deployment of cruise and probably also Pershing II missiles. To the extent that the missile dispute is “really” (for the Reagan administration) about the will and proneness to coercion of West European NATO countries, the deployment of the missiles would indeed be a victory in itself. By the same token (of the political psychology of deterrence) the Soviet Union might well see political victory of sorts in the prospect of the missiles being deployed over the protests and no doubt the recumbent bodies of NATO citizens.

Every country in the world could be coerced by the Soviet Union or the United States, and has been coercible in this sense for the past generation. But the notion of newly meaningful coercive power depends on the assumption that the technical possibility of controlled and limited nuclear war makes the Soviet Union more likely to attempt coercion, and the rest of the world more likely to succumb. Would Belgium really be more supine if the Soviet Union were able, let us say, to destroy NATO headquarters without inflicting “collateral damage” on suburban Brussels? Would Yugoslavia, to put the matter differently, be more influenced by the US in a crisis because the US could conduct a controlled nuclear strike in the Croatian highlands?

  1. 22

    The details of this resolve are more obscure. Thus Weinberger’s report states that the US intends to procure 110 ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCM) in the current fiscal year, 1983, while the two supporting documents transmitted to Congress with it give a figure of 84; the figure given in Weinberger’s report of last year was 120. The four sources yield four different estimates of the unit procurement cost of a GLCM in 1983. For the 1984 fiscal year, Weinberger’s report vouchsafes the same unit cost as is given in one out of his two supporting documents; this constitutes an increase in unit cost of 30 percent or $1.189 million over that given in Weinberger’s previous report, for the same number of missiles. The discrepancy is actually quite substantial, even by the standards of the horseman of “major management systems improvements” who used to be known as “Cap the Knife”: the estimated 1983 unit procurement cost of an MX missile, for example, increases by only 19 percent—from $166 million to $198 million—between Weinberger 1983 and Weinberger 1984. Caspar Weinberger, Annual Report to the Congress, Fiscal Year 1984, p. 233; Department of Defense Budget for Fiscal Year 1984: Procurement Program (P-1), p. F-10; Department of Defense Budget for Fiscal Year 1984: Program Acquisition Costs by Weapon System, p. 77 (an “errata sheet”); Caspar Weinberger, Annual Report to the Congress, Fiscal Year 1983, p.III-72.

  2. 23

    The Organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, United States Military Posture for Fiscal Year 1984 (Washington, DC, 1983), pp. 40-41.

  3. 24

    The US proposal is not to ban all US and Soviet missile systems of this range, but rather all such missiles that are based on land.

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