Between Ace and Deuce

March 1, 1985
Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, Director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, says that support for SDI is diminished by misunderstandings base on “bumper-sticker logic.” A similar—and potentially more dangerous—strain of intellectual innocence can be seen in the ongoing reevaluation of basic defense strategy, which is an inescapable corollary to the SDI debate.

Too often, our strategy options are depicted as a choice of extremes: a perfect defensive shield that frees us from all fear of nuclear weapons, or else the all-or-nothing retaliatory doctrine known as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). These concepts represent only an ace and a deuce from the strategic deck. In between, a great many more realistic cards can be found.

Up to World War II, military strategy was concerned mainly with how to win wars. There were, to be sure, instances when disputes among nations were decided by possession of power rather than by direct us of it, but avoidance of war was a byproduct of strategy, not a central objective.

The nuclear age, however, required a new kind of strategy, one designed to prevent war and at the same time protect the interests of nations. This was the concept of deterrence—maintenance of sufficient power to forestall any thought of aggression on the part of an adversary. A family of implementing strategies was and is possible under the general heading of deterrence.

Massive Retaliation, a strategy of the 1950s, was a comparatively crude approach to deterrence. It relied on all-out exercise of nuclear power to such an extent that the nation had few defensive moves short of general war. Every confrontation had to be met with the threat of massive retaliatory attack. Even at a time when the United States had clear nuclear supremacy, that was inadequate. This led, in the 1960s, to the search for “Flexible Response.” The major outcome was greatly increased attention to conventional forces. A number of strategic deterrent concepts to succeed Massive Retaliation emerged, too. One of these was MAD, but it was pretty much the same old dog wearing a new collar.

MAD is a minimalist strategy. All it requires—and all it allows—is that after sustaining an attack ourselves, we be able to devastate Soviet cities in retaliation. Sample figures once forecast potential destruction of thirty percent of the Soviet population and seventy-five percent of Soviet industry. Since military assets, many of which would be hardened, need not be targeted, weapons and forces for MAD are relatively inexpensive. Not much is required in the way of strategic defense or command or control. It is a reflexive revenge strategy, with no selective or measured options.

In the spectrum of strategic postures, MAD can be seen either as a self-contained strategy, complete in itself, or as a foundation on which more flexible deterrent strategies can be built. The essential difference in these strategies is the choice of targets, the amount of strategic defense provided for, and the sort of forces required.

The addition of defensive features, for example, complicates the enemy’s targeting problems and provides some protection in case deterrence fails and an attack occurs. Before cards in the strategic deck are the more complex postures referred to as Damage-Limiting strategies. They incorporate not only a measure of defense but also some targeting of military assets as well.

At the high end of the theoretical deterrent deck is full Counterforce, with adequate capability to target all of the hardest of military assts with confidence. This is a very costly approach, requiring great sophistication in capabilities, disposition, and support, and one the United States is not likely to pursue or achieve.

The classic approach is for strategies to prescribe forces, but in reality the kind of forces available also prescribes and limits strategy. Forces with less capability have fewer strategy options. Gen weapons that lack the accuracy and lethality to be restricted to a “city-bashing” Countervalue targeting doctrine. Strong, secure forces are less likely to be tempted by high-risk tactics, such as Launch on Warning.

The United States has, in recent years, sought its cards from the middle of the strategic deck. But Soviet superhardening techniques get better as their ICBMs become more lethal, a vigorous US strategic modernization effort is imperative. Otherwise, the Soviet Union will eventually have a commanding Counterforce capability, while we are left with strategic potions that amount to little more than MAD.

SDI is a research and development program, not a set of fully perceived capabilities that will be ready for operational employment anytime soon. Perhaps SDI will someday yield technologies that permit us to replace deterrent strategies with defensive ones. So far, this possibility is only a goal, and a distant one at that.

Knowledgeable sources say that defensive technology is moving ahead fast, and that is good. But strategic defense, like MAD, need not be an isolated strategy in itself. Its most promising feature can be blended, as they come along, into broader strategies. Even a partial defense against ballistic missiles, for example, could greatly enhance our current posture of deterrence.

Meanwhile, it would be a huge mistake to slacken efforts on modernization of the strategic triad of ICBMs, SLBMs, and manned bombers. In the era of nuclear parity, our doctrine no longer calls for strategic supremacy, or even for superiority. We do not have to hold the ace necessarily, but we must have some cards better than the deuce. Much depends on the hand our opponents is prepared to play.