An Impossible Dream?

A Matter Of Diplomacy--Not Military Strategy

In the United States, there is a pronounced tendency, due perhaps to the high level of our technology and the positivist outlook which thrives in a technological environment, to regard man and society as conditioned by the tools they use. It is, for instance, widely believed in this country that there exists such a thing as an "industrial society" with its particular system of values and code of behavior: this despite the fact the record of history indicates quite convincingly that the introduction of advanced methods of mechanical production, in one country (e.g. England) led to the reduction of the power of the state and contributed to liberalization, and in another (e.g. Germany), yielded the very opposite results.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the sudden appearance in 1945 of nuclear weapons should have been received in the United States in a manner consistent with the positivist outlook. American intellectuals who addressed themselves to the question of their implications, assumed from the beginning that there inheres in these monstrous tools of destruction a logic obligatory on all who possessed them. That logic, in their view, rested on several related propositions: (1) that nuclear weapons were so destructive in their immediate application as well as after effects that they threatened not only the victim of aggression but all humanity, the aggressor included; (2) that no defense was possible against them; and (3) that, for both these reasons, they could have no conceivable political or military utility--except to deter otheres also armed with them. These assumptions, still widely held a third of a century after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, underpin our approach to SALT and explain the critical importance which we attach to it both in our defense planning and in our relations with the Soviet Union.

A cool, critical analysis of these assumptions, however, might well reveal that far from axiomatic they are vulnerable on logical as well as pragmatic grounds. Without attempting such an analysis, let me point out a couple of glaring inconsistencies in our prevailing nuclear philosophy.


America's nuclear strategy rests on the concept of deterrence. But it ought to be quite clear that deterrence, whatever its merits, is anything but a strategy. Deterrence postulates that an adequate means of retaliation in the hands of one power will inhibit another power from launching a nuclear attack upon it. As such, it is a device for preventing war, not a guideline for the conduct of war. Now the prevention of war is the province of diplomacy, not of military strategy: the latter normally takes over precisely at the point where the former fails and the parties to a dispute resort to arms. Of course, we have developed a variety of strategic options and targeting policies for the contingency of nuclear war. I doubt, however, whether we have a clear notion of what these weapons are supposed to accomplish should we be required to use them. Deeply imbedded in all our plans is the notion of punishing the aggressor rather than defeating him.

Secondly, consider the issue of nuclear supremacy. It is often argued, sometimes with the invocation of heaven's name, that the concept of nuclear superiority is utterly meaningless because there is no way in which it can be exploited. National security, it is said, requires nothing more (nor less) than strategic parity or "essential equivalence." One does not have to be an expert on formal logic to realize that the terms "parity" or "equivalence" postulate their contraries, which are "superiority" and "inferiority." He who says "parity" unavoidably, even if silently, admits to the possibility of "dis-parity," that is, superior and inferior entities. Were this not the case, we would have no need for arms limitations. We could readily permit the Russians to squander their resources on accumulating until the end of time useless arsenals of still bigger and more adequate missiles while we enjoyed the good life behing our deterrent.


There are many other troubling assumptions in our strategic thinking. For example, what is one to make of the threat to inflict "unacceptable damage on the enemy should he strike? Who has ever defined "unacceptable damage?" using what standards? and whose norms? I will pass over these matters, however, to proceed to an issue of especially grave importance for the U.S.-USSR military competition, namely the concept "strategic" itself.

As an insular nation, we have come instinctively to define strategic weapons to mean weapons capable of inflicting harm on one's homeland; and just as instinctively, we have attributed this definition to the Russians. As a matter of fact, however, except when it suits them for purposes of negotiating certain arms limitations with us (as, for instance, in the case of the Backfire bomber), the Russians have not adopted this definition at all. Their criterion for determining what constitutes strategic weapons is not geographic but functional: a strategic weapon to them is one which, regardless of its range, can attain immediate strategic objectives, which always and everywhere entail depriving the enemy of the capability to offer resistance. The geographic criterion, that is, losses of territory with the people and resources located on them, has in their military thinking a secondary importance. This attitude results in part from historic experience. The Russians, who live in a country of open frontiers, have learned over centuries that the sacrifice of lives, territory, and resources is not, in itself, fatal, provided that the political authority and its military arm remain intact to mount a counter-offensive at the appropriate moment. The attitude also derives in part from intense thinking about Kriegswissenschaft or voennaia nauka, the science of war, of which the Russians are today, now that the Germans have quit the field, the world's addicts.

The arrival in the 1940's of nuclear weapons left the Russian military confused. Stalin wanted them, but he hardly appreciated the revolution in warfare which they had brought about. His successors wavered for a while, torn between the desire to obtain their own stockpile of atomic and thermonuclear bombs, and the fear instilled in them by the American theory that nuclear war is suicidal. Finally, the matter was turned over to high-level committees composed of political figures, military personnel, and scientists. These specialists addressed themsleves to the fundamental question: is there or is there not political-military utility to strategic nuclear weapons: that is, can the side that employs them more effectively expect to win a nuclear war? We know little about the course of these discussions which began in the middle of the 1950's: but we do know that the decision reached by 1959 ran contrary to the prevailing U.S. view. Strategic weapons, it was concluded, not only had their utility: they had become the decisive instruments of modern warfare. The establishment in the winter of 1959-60 of the Strategic Rocket Forces as a separate service marked the onset of a fundamental transformation of Soviet military thinking and development that is still in the course of implementation. Just as in the interwar years, the German Reichswehr had developed a novel strategy for rapid breakthroughs of static defenses centered on the tank which the British had invented in World War I, so the Russians had taken over the U.S. developed nuclear warhead, fitted it onto the German-devised rocket, and formulated a fresh strategy in which, in violation of all the canons of traditional warfare, strategic objectives are to be secured in advance of tactical operations. I believe that we are as oblivious of these staggering innovations in the art of war as the French and the British in their time had been of the German strategy of the armored Blitzkrieg. There is a striking parallel between their faith in passive defenses anchored on the Maginot Line, and ours in a "sufficient" deterrent. The skill of the strategist consists of neutralizing the strategy of the enemy. All the available evidence suggests that the primary goal of Soviet strategic thinking and deployments for the past two decades has been to find ways of circumventing our nuclear deterrent as decisively as the Germans had circumvented the Maginot fortifications.

As stated, in the current view of the Soviet leaders, nuclear weapons are the decisive instruments of modern warfare: consequently, their forces are structured around them, and their operations adopted to them. Russian generals do not deny the possibility of conventional engagements between the major powers, but they look upon these as mere skirmishes in a protracted conflict in which the employment of strategic weapons will prove crucial. It will be crucial because the punishment which the enemy's nuclear missiles can inflict on one's armed forces--the troops, their command, and their logistic support--is potentially so devastating that no commander can consider deploying them for combat until and unless this threat has been substantially lifted. This, of course, entails preemption, and its literature leaves no doubt that the Soviet Union intends massively to preempt the instant the leadership has arrived at the conclusion that war is unavoidable. In their view, a nuclear first strike plays in modern warfare a role comparable to that performed by rapid mobilization before 1914: the laggard risks to lose at the very outset, no matter how long the ensuing war. This means that a decision to resort to strategic nuclear weapons is not one likely to confront them on its own merits; rather, it will follow from a decision to go to war.

I do not wish to be misunderstood. I am not saying that the Soviet High Command is plotting a surprise nuclear attack on the United States or its allies. The Soviet leadership is undoubtedly well aware of the risks and consequences of nuclear war. What I am saying is that they regard a general war to be possible, and have concluded that in such a war nuclear weapons will decide the issue. This being the case, they draw the further inference that the side that has prepared itself most thoroughly for fighting a nuclear war, both offensively and defensively, stands a better chance to emerge intact from it. It is the task of Soviet diplomacy to avert war; it is the task of the Soviet military to win it, speedily and with the least losses, should diplomacy fail. It is difficult to fault this chain of reasoning.

These various considerations help explain why SALT plays so insignificant a role in Soviet strategic thinking. In the voluminous Soviet literature on modern warfare, SALT is hardly mentioned. The impression one gains from reading this material is that from the Soviet Union's vantage point, the purpose of arms limitation talks is not so much to reduce that particular aspect of U.S. power which it fears the most, namely advanced technology and the ability it gives us suddenly to neutralize the war machine which the Russians are building up so systemically and at such heavy cost. We ought to make certain that just as they seek to circumvent our strategy by deterring our deterrent, we circumvent theirs. This can best be accomplished by subjecting ourselves in SALT to the least restraints on technological developments and technological transfers.

I will not presume to offer a military strategy to meet the Soviet threat. This is not something that professors of history ought to attempt--nor, for that matter, professors of government, economics, or physics; nor retired diplomats. This surely is the legitimate province of the professional military, who are charged with the responsibility for implementing the nation's strategic plans should war break out. However, before such a strategy can be formulated, it is essential to take a serious look at the premises underlying our strategic posture as well as that of our most formidable enemy, free of the presumption that just because we happen to have been the first with nuclear weapons, we have a unique insight into their nature.

Recommended Articles