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Not So Grand Strategy

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

co-chaired by Fred C. Iklé, by 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.

  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).

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