Not So Grand Strategy

Discriminate Deterrence: Report of the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy

co-chaired by Fred C. Iklé and Albert Wohlstetter
US Government Printing Office, 69 pp.

For the past fifteen months, a group of this country’s leading experts on military and international affairs has been attempting to produce what many critics believe was impossible for the Reagan administration to achieve: an “integrated” and “long-term” strategy that would prepare the US to meet the changing “security environment” for the rest of this century and the early decades of the next. Co-chaired by Fred C. Iklé, who has just retired as the under-secretary for defense, and by the strategic analyst Albert Wohlstetter, the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy includes inter alios such notables as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Anne Armstrong, and General Andrew Goodpaster. Since there is no minority report, one presumes that all thirteen members of the commission agree with the analysis and conclusions set forth therein. In that sense, it may fairly be regarded as one of the most important public overviews of what American grand strategy should be, as seen by its intellectual and policy-influencing elite, or at least an important part of it.

It is all the more regrettable, therefore, that the commission’s suggestions have received only the most desultory discussion—the obligatory brief synopses in the press, an even briefer coverage by television networks obsessed at the time about the campaigning in Iowa, and a certain amount of whispering that the report will soon be safely buried within the Pentagon’s walls and not be much used by whichever administration enters office in January 1989. Nor is there any indication that I am aware of that Mr. Reagan—the person constitutionally responsible for making sure that United States strategy is efficacious, “integrated,” and not merely short-term—has devoted long hours of reading and reflection to the commission’s proposals.

It ought to be said at once, therefore, that the report is well worth the attention of every concerned American citizen, and, for that matter, of our allies abroad. It is relatively easy to read, nicely organized, and contains some extremely interesting suggestions. It is also refreshingly wide-ranging, at least in its first chapter (entitled “The Changing Security Environment”), in seeking to place American national strategy within the broader context of the global economic, technological, and political changes that have occurred over the past decade or so. It reflects a Kissinger-like interest in geopolitics, and contains a number of (selectively chosen) maps and tables to help the reader along to the very conclusions that the commission hopes will be accepted. Future reports, prepared by working groups that assisted the commission, will cover more specialized topics like “The Role of Advanced Conventional Standoff Weapons” and “The Systems Acquisition Process.” But Discriminate Deterrence constitutes the foundation upon which those more detailed and arcane proposals must rest.

The commission begins its analysis by observing that, for the past four decades, the United States has carried out a grand strategy of extraordinary global sweep and remarkable durability. Essentially, it consists of the

forward deployment of American forces, assigned to oppose invading armies and backed by strong reserves and a capability to use nuclear weapons if necessary. Resting on alliances with other democratic countries, the strategy aims to draw a line that no aggressor will dare to cross.

But however successful that strategy may have been in deterring a major Soviet assault upon the United States or its allies to date, it is not without its weaknesses. In the first place, much of the American planning and force structure has been related to what the commission terms “extreme threats”—an extensive Warsaw Pact conventional attack upon the NATO Central Front and a strategic nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. Those two “threats” are interconnected: a Warsaw Pact breakthrough (within a few days of the outbreak of hostilities) would probably lead to consideration by the NATO allies of the use of nuclear weapons to check that advance; but once the nuclear threshold was crossed, the United States might face the awful dilemma that its destruction of Soviet forces and (more important) Soviet “rear areas” could provoke the Russians into striking American soil.

Echoing Henry Kissinger’s warning that it is unrealistic to depend upon an American president risking the destruction of his own country for Europe’s sake, the commission has little tolerance for the widely held theory that the mutual vulnerability of the two superpowers is a guarantee of stability and the best form of deterrence. They favor instead an array of new weapons systems, conventional and nuclear, which could give NATO enhanced offensive as well as defensive capabilities, and thus have a good chance of halting the Red Army in its tracks.

The second objection the commission makes to the present military concentration upon “extreme threats” is that it ignores serious planning and force restructuring that could handle less apocalyptic but (in its view) altogether more likely threats elsewhere—the destabilization of Turkey and thus the NATO Southern Front, a Soviet incursion into Iran and the Persian Gulf, and, most likely of all, conflicts in the third world that would require “low intensity” operations against Marxist regimes and insurgencies. While it may be wrong to interpret this report as further evidence of the growing right-wing Republican tendency to play down Europe and concentrate upon Central America and the Pacific, a restructuring of (say) some of the Army’s heavy tank divisions into units equipped for operations in the tropics would have just that effect. Discriminate Deterrence is, incidentally, a document that Mr. Ortega’s regime will find compulsive reading.

There are, of course, a number of difficulties in the way both of improving NATO’s deterrence/war-fighting strategy and of preparing the armed services for third world contingencies. One of these is caused by geography: many of the allies that this country is pledged to assist are much closer to the Soviet Union than to the United States; and the problem of access has grown of late, the commission tersely notes, because of the refusal of friends and allies to allow American bases on their territory or even to permit overflights. For all the money that the Reagan administration has put into enhancing the sealift and airlift capacities of all the armed forces, the commission is clearly uneasy.

But the greatest problem of all is, predictably, the one that dogged grand strategists from Louis XIV to Winston Churchill: the lack of money to build up and organize the nation’s forces for their many roles. The commission is realistic enough to admit that the “boom” times of the early 1980s are over, as far as spending on defense is concerned; and although it makes the usual point that the United States now allocates a smaller proportion of its GNP to defense than it did in Eisenhower’s time, it doesn’t expect Congress to raise that share above the present 6 to 7 percent.

How, then, can this country be in a position to carry out the many military roles the commission envisages when its armed forces can expect little (or no) increase in funding? Not, the commission members believe, by allocating money to large and expensive weapons systems. Although they are kind enough not to be specific, it seems likely that they have in mind the ill-fated B-1 bomber and, perhaps more particularly, the gigantic nuclear-powered carriers favored by the Navy. (It is surely no coincidence that this report, followed by Frank Carlucci’s cautious annual defense budget, was then followed by the abrupt resignation of Navy Secretary James Webb.) Some large-scale systems, like the submarine program, should go ahead as before; but, overall, spending on such platforms is going to be at least as “discriminate” as spending for any other items called for by the commission’s report.

What the commission strongly discriminates in favor of, though, is high technology. While the members spend a lot of time worrying about Soviet advances in high-technology weaponry, they somewhat paradoxically place their faith in the exploitation of the West’s technological superiority to come to the aid of all of the strategical tasks that American armed forces have to perform. In third world conflicts, for example, advanced information-processing systems will store and collate vast amounts of data about insurgent movements and individual terrorists. “Low-cost space systems, long-endurance aircraft and robotic reconnaissance vehicles [will] make it possible to monitor large areas, day and night, regardless of weather or terrain.” So will “networks of sensors and other microelectronic equipment that will help in monitoring the movements of enemy forces.”

Similarly, in the European theater, “the Alliance’s posture could be transformed by new military technologies,” especially “low-observable” (Stealth) systems for aircraft and other vehicles, and precision-guided “smart” weapons. From the Fulda Gap in West Germany to the jungles of Honduras, it appears, improved weapons and detection systems will permit the United States to fulfill its varied obligations in an increasingly complex and changing world.

The above paragraphs cannot include all of the ideas and arguments contained in Discriminate Deterrence but I hope they give a fair sense of the major direction of the commission’s thinking, and reinforce my original remark that it is well worth studying.

If it is going to be studied, and especially if it is going to be used (e.g., by congressional committees), its readers would be well advised to distinguish between the argument put forward by the commission and the statistical and visual evidence it presents to buttress its arguments. One does not need to be acquainted with that classic work, The Use and Abuse of Statistics, to know that what is excluded from a table or graph is often as important as what is included—nor is it necessary to be a trained lawyer to know that evidence can be presented in one way or another, depending upon the conclusions you wish the jury to draw. This is a particularly important point with regard to assessments of the Soviet-American arms race, since many of the Pentagon’s own spending requests, and of the inferences that are drawn about Soviet strategical intentions, are derived from what at first sight appears to be “hard” statistical evidence. Yet, as the defense analyst Franklyn Holzman has demonstrated in two important articles, our knowledge of what the Soviets actually spend on defense is very limited indeed, and is measured by using criteria that are themselves a matter of professional dispute, especially when it comes to placing a dollar value on Russian arms expenditures.1

Perhaps certain of the distinguished members of the commission are well trained in the “deconstruction” of graphs and tables. Perhaps they have even perused Tom Gervasi’s Soviet Military Power: The Pentagon’s Propaganda Document, Annotated and Corrected2—his wicked critique of the DOD’s own annual report on Soviet Military Power—and, without sharing his political sympathies, perhaps they are aware that there is sometimes more (and sometimes less) in Department of Defense visual presentations than meets the eye. But since there is no evidence of that appreciation here, it merits a little discussion.

All of the statistical and visual evidence, with one interesting exception, points the reader toward the conclusion that, militarily and strategically, the United States has steadily lost ground to the Soviet Union over the past decade or two. Yet even if we leave aside Holzman’s queries about the “dollar price” that the DOD puts on Soviet defense spending, a close reading of the commission report suggests that, once again, it is not just in the realm of strategy that “discrimination” is being applied. For example, the sample comparison of the Soviet tank procurement of 24,300 vehicles in the years between 1978 and 1987 as against the American total of 7,580 in the same period not only ignores the issue of quality versus quantity; it also excludes the consideration of the tank totals of our NATO European allies, especially the large and extremely efficient tank army of the West Germans, not to mention those of China (see opposite page). In much the same way, the table on “U.S. vs. Soviet/East European Military Advisors in the Third World” suggestively points to an alarming change in this particular field. But it does not include British and French advisers, who are significantly more influential overseas (Chad, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates) than the East Germans or the Czechs. Is this sort of legerdemain really necessary?

Perhaps the most remarkable of the misleading statistical/visual devices occurs on pages 24–25, in the two maps purporting to show the vast enhancement that has occured in Russia’s access to the Persian Gulf since the mid-1950s.

Map A

Map B

These are maps that have been enthusiastically reproduced in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial3 in a wholly uncritical fashion that that paper’s very professional journalists would surely scorn. With regard to Map B (right), one is tempted to pose the question of why some US forces could not be flown from West Germany to the Gulf in a future emergency (and the even more interesting question of why they could not be routed via this country’s self-proclaimed “bastion” in the Middle East, Israel).

Moreover, in examining Map A (below), the reader cannot but be mystified by its blithe assumption that had the Soviet Union decided to move into the Gulf in the mid-1950s it would have flown 13,000 nautical miles (nonstop) around Europe and Africa rather than violate Iranian air space in exactly the same way that the commission suggests it might do in the future. By the mere stroke of a pen—putting in red arrows heading from the southern Soviet military districts to the Gulf—the image suggested by the first map is quite altered. All high school and college teachers instructing their students in the techniques of presentation will find these examples invaluable in the future: a curious side effect of the Department of Defense’s overzealous effort to show the decline in American global strategic capacities vis-à-vis those of the Soviet Union.

In one respect, however, the United States is apparently in no danger of declining: in its economic strength. The first illustration of all this (see opposite page) offers a double encouragement—of the Soviet Union being economically behind both Japan and China in the year 2010, and of a United States still having twice the GNP of any other power. Once again, it would be interesting to know if the commission’s learned members debated those projections and queried the methods and assumptions of the staff who provided them. For example, are the “1986 dollars” shown here being adjusted to the year 2010 to take account of “purchasing parity equivalents,” a device that has certain merits but is also capable of being used by conservative polemicists (e.g., Jeane Kirkpatrick) to argue that the United States is not in any significant relative economic decline?4

What we have, therefore, is a combination of statistical tables that suggest that the United States is not equal to the military challenge posed by the Soviet Union’s armed forces, and that this country is (and will continue to be) richer than any other.


For both these reasons, the commission urges maintaining the allocation of at least 6 percent of GNP to defense, and increasing real defense spending by about 3 percent or so a year, in line with its (somewhat optimistic) assumption that the economy will continue to expand at that rate.

If that degree of increase in real defense spending were permitted year after year (and without congressional interference), the commission believes that

we could acquire the systems needed to maintain the current worldwide posture, cope with some occasional new threats, and retain some needed flexibility. We could also incorporate the capabilities called for in this report.

Admittedly, as noted above, the commission feels that the present fiscally “austere” circumstances will make it prudent not to spend on expensive major platforms such as aircraft carriers but to concentrate instead on smart weapons, “intelligent subsystems and munitions,” and the like. While conceding that these are not ideal solutions, therefore, the commission is hopeful that this package of proposals will allow the United States to sustain its enduring aims in the world at large.

Nevertheless, however internally logical it is as a document, one is bound to query whether Discriminate Deterrence really does present an “integrated, long-term strategy.” Does it comprehend all of the elements—diplomatic and economic as well as military—that together make up the grand strategy of the world’s number one power as it strives to protect its interests in both peace and war? Does it recommend the full array of policies needed to assist the United States in preserving that number one position in the year 2020? (After all, a grand strategy that offers only short-to-middle-term relief for a country’s military dilemmas is not a “long term” strategy at all.) Finally, can that strategy properly be described as “integrated” if parts of the whole contradict themselves, or if certain of the arguments in the main text of the document point to conclusions at variance with those suggested in the commission’s own final chapter?

These points are worth asking, because one cannot help being struck by the disparity between the broad geopolitical approach with which the report begins and the increasingly narrow concern with high-technology weapons that occupies so much of the rest of the document. We are moving, the commission rightly observes, from a bipolar to a multipolar Great Power system. Yet the body of the report devotes very little space to pondering the diplomatic and political implications of that transition in the global balances, and remains fixated on the Soviet military threat; it shows much more interest, for example, in ballistic missile defense than it does in our critically important future relations with the People’s Republic of China. In that respect, the commission might have benefited by consulting another pundit on world affairs, Richard M. Nixon, whose new book, 1999: Victory Without War, has an altogether larger appreciation of what American external policy will require in a new multipolar world.5 Although Nixon is at least as anti-Soviet as any member of the commission, he does a far better job of outlining the tasks facing, and the possibilities open to, this country as it moves into new relationships with Western Europe, China, and Japan. As he puts it, if those relationships are successfully arranged, dealing with the Soviet Union becomes an altogether easier problem.

A further result of the commission’s heavy concentration upon “emerging technologies” is that it avoids the harder debate on political choices—choices about redefining American strategic obligations in various parts of the globe, and (a related issue) choices about which of the armed services should have priority in an era of relative fiscal austerity. Indeed, one might go further and hypothesize that precisely because the commission so strongly favors a technological “fix” to American strategic problems, it has excluded consideration of other approaches. Each of the armed services, being equipped with advanced-technology systems, will be able to fulfill its existing roles into the future; and every one of the American strategical obligations overseas, being similarly protected by newer weapons, can remain indefinitely.

As the commission proclaimed (in the quotation already given above), it wants the United States to “acquire the systems needed to maintain the current worldwide posture.” It thus excludes rethinking American long-term obligations to, for example, the Korean peninsula, which have been deep-frozen since the early 1950s although the political, economic, and military balances in that part of the globe have been enormously transformed in the meantime. Perhaps the commission felt that any detailed ponderings over American overseas obligations would cause alarm in foreign capitals. More likely, it simply preferred not to contemplate the matter at all, believing a change in policy to be unnecessary. Perhaps they are right; but one wonders if any of them, in ruminating about the long term, ever reflected upon the observation of that great (and very conservative) foreign secretary, Lord Salisbury, that “there is nothing more fatal to statecraft than clinging to the carcasses of past policies.”

Finally, there is the critical issue of American economic strength, that is, of preserving the manufacturing and financial resources and the infrastructure upon which every great power, and its military forces, ultimately depend. Apart from the optimistic chart showing the United States still possessing an unchallenged GNP in the year 2010, the commission displays very little concern in this report for the economic dimensions of national power. The few remarks that do occur are made almost exclusively from a military viewpoint. On page 9, the commission observes that

the United States has fewer scientists and engineers [than the USSR] working on military technology. The U.S. budgets for defense research and procurement have been lagging the Soviet effort and may continue to do so.

And somewhat later, when urging the development of new technologies, it notes that “they afford a powerful reminder of the extent to which our long-term strategy depends critically on investments in military science” (my emphasis). For that reason, therefore,

The “rusting” of the technology base in the past couple of decades is a deeply disturbing trend. The United States badly needs an aggressive effort, informed by a long-term strategy, to strengthen science and technology programs.

Apart from this worry that there are insufficient “investments in military science,” the commission has nothing else to say on what has to be one of the most fundamental elements in any power’s integrated, long-term strategy: the preservation of its productive strength. There is no mention at all of the way in which the Reagan administration has managed to turn this country from being the world’s greatest creditor-nation to being the greatest debtor-nation in the space of seven years (an all-time historic record, I believe)—or of the strategical and diplomatic consequences of becoming so dependent upon the inflow of foreign capital to pay the government’s bills. There is no mention of the way in which so many American companies (including those making weapons for the armed services) increasingly rely upon non-American suppliers; there has, for example, been a dreadful decline in this country’s capacity to manufacture its own microchips, which are so vital to avionics, electronics, and, indeed, to most of the “emerging technologies” favored by the commission. There is no mention—perhaps, no thought—about the quality and training of our workforce, or the levels of scientific and technological knowledge of our school children, yet both are absolutely vital parts of society’s overall national strength.

More to the point, the commission’s recommendations as they stand actually run the risk of weakening American economic competitiveness. The development of SDI, the production of “Stealth” systems, and the commitment to the vast accumulation of high-technology weapons, sensors, and retrieval-equipment as proposed here would certainly cost money, perhaps a lot of money. Whether the existing defense budget, and the projected 3 percent annual growth in real terms, could pay for all this is hard to judge: no cost estimates are offered in this report. But one is bound to ask where all the engineers, scientists, and technologists will come from in order to get such advanced weapons systems developed. Is the commission aware that this country is now producing fewer engineers than Japan, which has half our population; and that of the engineering Ph.D.’s turned out by US universities last year only 40 percent were American—the rest being foreign students, many of whom are heading home to Taiwan or Sweden?

Moreover, while most Japanese engineers and scientists work for commercial export-oriented industry, committed to increasing their country’s economic expansion in the world, in the American case large numbers of them are tempted into defense-related industry, committed to gaining and fulfilling Pentagon contracts. American industry, which employs multitudes of MBAs, lawyers, and cash-flow accountants, is already badly disadvantaged vis-à-vis Japan in highly qualified personnel in the technical and scientific fields. It is not hard to see that the commission’s recommendations, if fully implemented, would increase that competitive disadvantage.

Perhaps the burgeoning national debt and the annual total of engineering Ph.D.’s produced in this country are not seen to be central parts of an integrated, long-term strategy in the view of former national security advisers and retired generals. If so, that is a pity. For that narrowness of approach, which steadily turns the early promise of Discriminate Deterrence more and more into a document on “military policy,” suggests that there is still a long way to go before we get a full comprehension of what a number one power’s peacetime grand strategy is all about. Only when the military dimension is properly “integrated” with this country’s diplomacy, economic structure, technology, science, education, and all of the other components of national strength will we be able to have a real long-term strategy. Is not that day overdue?

  1. 1

    F.D. Holzman, “Are the Soviets Really Outspending the US on Defense?,” International Security, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Spring, 1980), pp. 86–104; and “Soviet Military Spending: Assessing the Numbers Game,” International Security, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Spring, 1982), pp. 78–101.

  2. 2

    Sixth edition (Vintage, 1987).

  3. 3

    February 1, 1988.

  4. 4

    This point is not an arcane one. “Purchasing Parity Equivalents” (PPEs)—a means of expressing what exchange rates would need to be for the same “basket of goods” to have the same price in each country—is useful for firms or organizations (the State Department) assessing how to compensate their officials for differentiated living costs overseas. But precisely because it adjusts for different costs of living and for currency changes, it disguises comparisons of national wealth and GNP at current-exchange rates. For example, Japan’s present GNP of so many trillion yen might, when represented in US dollars, equal about 60 percent of the American GNP. Let us suppose that (a) the yen–dollar exchange ratio steadily deteriorates from 130:1 to 80:1 between now and the end of the century, and that (b) the Japanese economy grows on average 1.5 percent per annum faster than the American in real terms over the same period. The result would be that Japan’s total GNP would be larger than America’s, in current-exchange terms, by the year 2000. But that shift in their relative economic weights would be disguised by making annual adjustments in favor of “purchasing power equivalents.” The US therefore still remains number one (on paper).

  5. 5

    Simon and Schuster, 1988.