The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy
The Soviet Union and the Arms Race
As the United States faces a series of tangled and potentially divisive choices in its policy toward nuclear weapons, these books by young British scholars make serious contributions to our understanding of central elements of the problem. Lawrence Freedman tells us the history of our good and bad thoughts about nuclear strategy, and David Holloway describes more briefly the history of nuclear strategy on the Soviet side. Each has mastered a formidable and often opaque “literature.” Both have been respectful of the record but bold in judging it, and they write with a clarity and fairness that are distressingly rare in American debates. Neither is peddling a panacea, and citizens trying to find a sensible course between unilateral disarmament and the miscellaneous nuclear expansionism of the Reagan administration will find solid help from both. Moreover, each author is meticulous in giving credit to those on whose works he builds, so that each book is not only a free-standing work of analysis but also an excellent guide to further study.
The central lesson of Mr. Freedman’s magisterial survey is that the realities of nuclear weapons have defied the best efforts of the nuclear strategists. No one in the West has found a good or even an acceptable way to fight a nuclear war against an opponent with thousands of nuclear weapons of his own that are “survivable,” i.e., that can still be used after a first strike. “Those who have responsibility for unleashing nuclear arsenals live by the motto that if they ever had to do so they would have failed. Remarkably, up to now they have succeeded. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la stratégie.”
The absence of a workable strategy for nuclear war-fighting is not the result of inattention or stupidity. Freedman has much to say about the remarkable men who have tried and failed to tame the beast: Vannevar Bush and P.M.S. Blackett claimed that the weapon was not all that destructive, but their arguments were shattered by the hydrogen bomb and the long-range missile. Robert Oppenheimer and Henry Kissinger were attracted in quite different ways by the possibility that nuclear battlefield weapons could be deployed to keep the peace through preparation for a less than apocalyptic war but eventually they were persuaded otherwise. Robert McNamara (for a short while), James Schlesinger, and Jimmy Carter—a strangely assorted trio—also tried to design “limited” uses for nuclear weapons that might somehow be “remotely plausible”; but none of them came close to demonstrating that any such “limited” war could in fact be kept under control. Finally Freedman discusses the much more crude and still less credible dabblers in ideas of meaningful victory, from the theorists of triumphant air power in the 1940s to the brash young civilians still arguing in 1980 that “victory is possible.” It is somehow fitting that Ronald Reagan himself, fearing that he might be supposed to think otherwise, has given that proposition its definitive denial: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Whether everyone in the Pentagon has heard the president may be another question.
What was learned and learned again in this long effort was what so many now understand in their bones: once they are many, big, and fast, these weapons do not lend themselves to any carefully planned or limited use of any sort, because no one can tell what will happen after even one of them is used in anger. There has never been a war game that offered comfort to either side. No one knows how any “limited” use would be answered. The most accurate long-range warheads on both sides would kill millions, by fire and fallout, even if, improbably, both sides tried not to hit a single town. Of course, no one can prove that any first use of nuclear weapons will lead to a general conflagration. But what is decisive is that no one can come close to proving it will not. Freedman demonstrates that this hard lesson is the product of a generation of efforts to disprove it.
Did the nuclear strategists teach us nothing, then? Far from it. It was the first and best of them all, Bernard Brodie, who understood at the beginning that the basic rules had changed forever. “Thus far,” he wrote, “the chief purpose of a military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.” To remember that—to aim at deterrence—was the key to good choices.
Moreover, strategists had a major part in winning recognition of the single most important element in effective deterrence: the survivability of deliverable weapons. Brodie was the first to argue this as well, but probably Albert Wohlstetter had the greatest effect, excepting only Dwight Eisenhower (whose early recognition of the problem of preventing surprise attack Freedman notes, but not as sharply as I would). Wohlstetter defined with clarity the decisive difference between first-strike and second-strike weapons—what you can do only by attacking first and what you can do after absorbing an attack—and underlined the absolutely critical importance of adequate second-strike capacity. The requirement for survivable second-strike nuclear strength governed the excellent weapons choices of the later years of the Eisenhower administration, and was respected by its successor. No other single requirement is so important to maintaining deterrence today. Of no small significance is the fact that the first people to insist on this basic analytical distinction were not the organized military, but outside civilian advisers and a president who had enough self-confidence to seek his own counsel and impose his own judgment.
The distinction between first-strike and second-strike forces is as valid today as it was twenty-five years ago. Failure to respect it is the underlying weakness of the long and so far unsuccessful campaign to persuade the Congress and the country to build the MX missile. There are many strange elements in the story of the MX, but what is fundamentally wrong with it is that it was not designed with its own survivability as the governing requirement. It is big—ninety-six tons—partly because the defenders of SALT II wanted to be able to say that under their treaty we could have missiles as destructive as those the Soviets already had, but its enormous size makes it hard to hide and move. The missile has ten warheads mounted on a single launcher, partly because SALT II limits launchers more tightly than warheads. (An MX with ten warheads counts as one launcher and so does the existing single-warhead Minuteman II, which MX was initially designed to replace.) But many warheads on a single missile make a tempting target.
To see why things went wrong here we must look deeper at what really governed the initial drive for MX. It became the dream weapon of the Air Force because it was designed to serve a governing purpose quite different from that of survivability. It was designed to be a counterforce weapon, one that could be used to kill Soviet missiles in their holes—destroying more than one such missile with each MX—and also to kill other hard targets essential to Soviet nuclear war-fighting: command posts, communications centers, and the like. In explicit doctrine MX is not a first-strike weapon; our doctrine does not say we will ever go first in an all-out strategic exchange. But MX is a war-fighting weapon, and to its ultimate sponsors in the Air Force its capacity to kill has always been more important than its capacity to survive. In that sense it is a weapon that reflects not the hard-won wisdom of Brodie, Wohlstetter, and Eisenhower but the primeval commitment to the offense of a much earlier tradition.
If, like the Air Force, you put first the war-fighting requirement of being able to hit enemy missile sites as fast as possible, MX is a technical marvel. But if you accept the imperatives of longstanding strategic thinking and put first the requirement of survivability, it is a technical monstrosity. Advertised as the answer to the emerging vulnerability of the existing Minuteman missiles, it is itself less survivable, warhead for warhead, than they are. It is not a weapon that respects the first rule of deterrence.
Having shared the desire to defend SALT II, and recognizing how this and other secondary considerations came to have the undue weight that they did, I do not criticize MX in any spirit of selfsatisfaction. Moreover, I respect the understandable institutional commitment of the Air Force to maintaining its traditionally central position in strategic deterrence. It cannot be easy or pleasant for Air Force officers to recognize that for some kinds of weapons today missiles based at sea are better than those based on land. But the interests of the military services do not come before the national interest, and “counterforce capability” is not of the same order of importance as survivability. The grave and self-destructive mistake that has been made through four administrations by the backers of the MX would never have occurred if the requirement of survivability had been put first, where it belongs, and not merely tacked on as an afterthought for designers of basing modes.
The primacy of deterrence over war fighting and of survivability over counterforce strategy are the beginning but not the end of nuclear wisdom. It is also necessary to decide how much is enough. Here again Freedman has much to tell us. He recounts fairly the debate over “mutual assured destruction” as a criterion for a sufficient force, noting, as its American critics seldom do, that the attack on cities as such was never a strategy that the US planners preferred. Indeed the original sponsors of this criterion were also the first to develop options for sparing cities. But Freedman also notes, and Holloway conclusively demonstrates, that there was and is no symmetry between any American calculation of how much potential destruction of Soviet military and industrial targets would be “enough” to deter an attack and what the Soviets have chosen to build. Neither in doctrine nor in procurement have the Soviets been governed by criteria of assured destruction; they have built weapon systems much too big to fit that standard. Nor have they been influenced by notions of limited nuclear war, which they have regularly denounced. About the realities of Soviet belief and behavior, neither our theorists nor our military officers have been notably clear-headed; analysts of all persuasions have been inclined to make the easy and erroneous assumption that what we think is what the Soviets will think when they pay attention.
Holloway knows better. Using a wide range of Soviet and Western sources, and basing his analysis on careful study of “the historical experience, the policy objectives and the institutions that have sustained the Soviet military effort,” he has produced a remarkably acute assessment of what drives Soviet military policy, especially in nuclear matters. The Soviet decision makers he describes, for their own strong reasons, have been businesslike and determined about nuclear weapons. After Hiroshima they wanted them just as fast as they could get them; they were equally quick and energetic in their pursuit of thermonuclear weapons a few years later. They were slow, if only marginally slower than the Americans, to see the advantages of arms-control agreements. They were wary of large bombers and were early believers in missiles, which they call rockets. They believe in deterrence, but talk about it as part of wider political aims, such as preventing “imperialist war” and strengthening “peace forces.”