Imperfect Options

Feb. 1, 1986

Air Force Magazine began publishing The Military Balance, the standard international reference on military forces of the world, in 1971. As we do so again this month, it is appropriate to consider the developments over those fifteen years as a backdrop to interpreting the latest set of facts and figures.

All responsible analysts agree that the strategic position of the United States has declined in relation to that of the Soviet Union. There is substantial disagreement, however, about the consequences of that decline and about the proper course of action as a result of it. The question cannot be resolved by simple comparison of force and weapon numbers. A number of factors, especially the great differences in political objectives, geography, and defense requirements of the two nations, makes direct comparison almost meaningless. The only valid test of adequacy for US military power is the degree to which it could fulfill US defense strategy if called upon to do so.

That strategy is, first of all, a defensive one, the United States having, in effect, renounced the option of firing the first shot. This is of major military consequence, since it concedes advantages of surprise and initiative and would allow an adversary to determine when, where, and how a conflict would begin. US strategy must provide not only for defense of the United States but also for the protection of its allies. This requirement to guarantee extended protection is, in may ways, a more difficult proposition than defense of the American homeland.

The objective of US strategy is to deter war at all levels, denying any perception of possible victory to the adversary. If deterrence fails, the United States will seek to limit the scope and intensity of the conflict and to end it on terms as favorable as possible. A great deal has been made about whether or not this strategy obliges the United States to field a nuclear warfighting capability as opposed to a purely deterrent one. The distinction is interesting as an academic exercise, but in practice, credible deterrence requires a force that can conduct full strategic military operations and that is resolved to carry out the ultimate mission of ordered to do so. Otherwise, deterrence is only a bluff and will not work. The strategy clearly calls for a range of measured options for responses other than reflexive, all-out reprisal.

A more significant issue, then, is whether — despite force improvements of the past four years — our capabilities match the aspirations of our strategy. The answer is not comforting. Our general-purpose forces stand at levels below what their taskings would prescribe. But the first priority and the overriding concern is our central strategic capability. That is what our survival as a free nation depends on. All conflict today occurs in the nuclear shadow. Conventional forces of the major powers operate with the implicit backup of nuclear forces. Local conflict, even among minor powers, can escalate and draw in the nuclear-armed nations.

Nearly all strategic force trends over the past decade and a half have run strongly in favor of the Soviet Union. It is too much to ascribe a first-strike capability, as the term is generally understood, to the Soviets, but they certainly have the advantage of what the Scowcroft Commission called “a one-sided strategic condition.” They can attack our ICBM force using only a portion of their own, whereas our ability to threaten their ICBMs in superhardened silos has declined dangerously.

We need a convincing hard-target capability to hold Soviet military power, the command and control machinery, and the political continuity of the Soviet state at risk. Our stated strategy requires that, and without it, we are positioned poorly to deter either Soviet aggression or Soviet attempts to intimidate the rest of the world into accommodation. The objectives and ideology of the Soviet Union are opposed, fundamentally, to those of the free world. Unless we are willing to redefine our national interests substantially — which is unlikely — or to think that the Soviets will redefine theirs — which is even less likely — we must find some means of addressing the strategic imbalance.

We might, to paraphrase Eugene Rostow, seek to restore stable deterrence in three ways; by building our deterrent force capability, by developing highly effective defenses, or by means of an arms-control agreement that provides for Soviet-American deterrent retaliatory equality.

These are three imperfect families of options. Our nation has demonstrated a limited will to provide for its armed defense. It is improbable that we will regain the strategic superiority we once enjoyed. James Schlesinger is right: We will hereafter live with a higher level of risk than we did in the past. Arms control, so far, has been a relatively dry well, but we must keep digging and hoping. Defensive capabilities would be a good addition and sound strategy — provided we do not expect defenses alone to do the job.

Our best hope, emerging from these three families of imperfect options, is a mixed approach. We should pursue the best parts of all three, and it appears that this is what the current Administration is doing, despite some colorful rhetoric that might suggest otherwise from time to time. Part of its program should be to keep pressing for a full complement of MX missiles as the most sensible way to improve our hard-target capability and to build on our deterrent force posture from there.

A Soviet Union secure in its strategic advantage has little motivation to bargain seriously on arms control. We, meanwhile, are precariously situated to deter exploitation of that advantage. When following a mixed approach, it’s important that nothing essential be left out of the mix.