Rethinking Basic Strategy

Jan. 1, 1987

Well into December, the Pentagon was still laboring to put final touches on its plan for modernization of the ICBM force. This will be one of the most important issues to come before the 100th Congress, which convenes a few days from now. Specifically, Congress will be considering concepts for configurations of the new Small ICBM and basing modes for both the small missile and the MX peacekeeper. In a larger sense, though, the deliberations will be about whether and how ballistic missiles fit into the future defense strategy of the United States.

Cold logic would suggest that all factions — arms-control enthusiasts and defense hardliners alike — should agree, at least in principle , to push ahead vigorously with ICBM modernization. Even those strategists who predict the obsolescence of ballistic missiles see no realistic alternative to them for some years yet. And if the United States slackens its efforts to counter the massive and continuing buildup of Soviet ballistic missile forces, there will be no motivation for the Soviets to take arms-control discussions seriously.

Those arguing the issue, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, will have the benefit of a particularly wide-ranging analysis of strategic force requirements. By the middle of January, the Joint Chiefs of Staff will present their assessment of President Reagan’s idea, introduced at the Reykyjavik summit, for the United States and the Soviet Union to make deep cuts in strategic weapons over the next five years and eliminate ballistic missiles totally in ten years. At Reykjavik, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev responded by repeating his previous call for the superpowers to rid themselves of all nuclear arms. No immediate agreement was reached, primarily because President Reagan refused to bargain away his Strategic Defense Initiative, which he believes will eventually free the world from the threat of ballistic missiles.

Reykjavik has generated a fundamental reevaluation of strategic arms requirements, and Congress will be keenly aware of that as it weighs in ICBM modernization package. Congress will also have to take into account the feasibility of sweeping, Reykjavik-style changes. There are major military, political, and economic questions to be explored. There is widespread doubt that alternative force structures of sufficient size would be affordable — and further doubt about their basic adequacy. In Europe, the news from Reykjavik resurrected concerns about how firmly the protection of NATO remains linked to the protection of the United States.

Since World War II, the United States has followed a doctrine of strategic deterrence, keeping Soviet military power at bay mainly by the threat of nuclear retaliation. It has extended the protection of this strategic power to its allies. The specter of escalation to nuclear war is omnipresent in any conflict, so the superpowers have shied away from direct military confrontation. There is no way to know whether this nuclear standoff has prevented a conventional war that might otherwise have been fought in the past forty years. But one by-product is certain: The conventional military capabilities of the major power blocs have not been tested against each other.

The West, having thus avoided head-on challenge by the other side’s first team, has grown to reliant on nuclear weapons. This is an unhealthy predicament, but it has worked so far, and it has kept defense budgets down. Nuclear weapons are unmatched in sheer deterrent effect. As military forces go, they are relatively inexpensive. ICBMs, particularly, put a great deal of striking power on ready alert at low cost. Nuclear forces, however, are not a satisfactory substitute for conventional forces — although the free world has tried to make them so, with the result that allied theater forces today provide limited flexibility and few non-nuclear options in any conflict of significant size.

The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact have the overwhelming advantage of numbers in conventional forces. The West has traditionally held a quality edge, but the straight conventional match-up is so unfavorable that the US is compelled to reject Gorbachev’s proposal, which would ban nonballistic as well as ballistic nuclear weapons.

It is a standard assumption in arms-control circles that the US and its allies would increase their conventional forces to compensate for any reduction in nuclear forces. That could be, but governments on both sides of the Atlantic are groaning under the burden of their present defense budgets. It is difficult to imagine them funding double-digit increases in fighter wings and infantry divisions. It is equally difficult to imagine that, with nuclear arms drawn down on both sides, the Soviet Union would hold its conventional forces at constant levels while the West built toward parity. A key question is whether any feasible combination of conventional forces, backed up by nuclear-capable bombers, cruise missiles, and theater aircraft, would be sufficient to deter aggression and attempts at intimidation by the Soviet Union.

Underlying the entire issue, of course, is the degree of confidence to be placed in the Strategic Defense Initiative. Not everyone shares the President’s faith in it. Former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, for example, calls SDI “a collection of technical experiments and distant hopes.” Improved defenses would be a worthwhile part of an overall strategic posture. Perhaps the day will come when defenses alone will be enough, but no such capability has been demonstrated yet.

Until SDI is operational and an equitable, thoroughly verifiable arms-control agreement is in place, we will need modern nuclear deterrent forces, including ballistic missiles. It is not presently possible to mount any other response of equal credibility to Soviet military power.

If we allow that threat to go unanswered, our hand at the bargaining table is weakened, perhaps hopelessly so. And more important, our ability to protect our national interests will be dangerously diminished.