The Army’s Atomic Dilemma

May 1, 1956
For many years the annual budget battle among the three military services for the taxpayer’s dollar has revolved around the importance of their several roles and missions. Each spring the Air Force would say that the decision in any future war must necessarily come in the air, therefore it needed more money. The Navy would graciously acknowledge the vital roles of its sister services but would add that the successful prosecution of a future conflict depended, in the last analysis, on keeping open the sea lanes, therefore it needed more money. The Army would say that no war could be considered won until the Queen of Battles had made its last successful bayonet lunge at the enemy, therefore it needed more money.

To sideline observers of the Washington scene, there was a new feeling in the air this year. An examination of service testimony on Capitol Hill and public statements of service leaders seemed to indicate, if you read between the lines a little, that perhaps the millennium had arrived. Or at least that long strides were being taken in that direction. For once the three services seemed to be moving close to agreement as to what constitutes the decisive factor in war. There appeared to be little divergence as to the medium, the means, or the mission.

The common medium is the air, the common means the airplane or the guided missile armed with nuclear weapons, the mission to strike the enemy as close to his homeland and as far from ours as the state of the art permits. As Jimmy Durante might say, “Everybody wants to get into the act.”

The Air Force, to be sure, has been in the act from the beginning. To the Air Force the decisive element has always been the aerial delivery system, carrying the maximum destructive force available consonant with the target.

The Navy has been in the air act for a long time, but only comparatively recently did it decide to become part of our “deterrent force” and to make the enemy’s homeland, as well as his navy, a primary target.

The newest comer to the air business is, of course, the Army, and its position is perhaps the most significant because it represents well-nigh a 180-degree turn.

The fact is that all three services now want a strategic air capability, direct or implied. For the first time all services are united, psychologically at least, on a common strategy.

The catalyst which within ten years has welded together US military thinking is the revolution in firepower which first manifested itself at Hiroshima, coupled with fantastic strides taken during the past decade in ways to get a weapon from here to yonder.

The AF’s adjustment to nuclear firepower

For the Air Force the adjustment to nuclear firepower was made easier by the fact that it involved no radical changes in doctrine or strategy, and only comparatively minor adjustments in tactics. To airmen, the quantum jump in firepower represented primarily new and convincing justification for the theories of warfare they had already developed around a delivery system as revolutionary in its day as was the atomic bomb years later in the fields of firepower.

For the older services, however, the new dimension of war came as a bit of a shock. At first blush, it seemed best to ignore the A-bomb, in the hope that it might “go away” and not do violence to time-hallowed roles, missions, or organizations. The A-bomb was played down, its effects pooh-poohed, even the morality of its use attacked. But the pressures of technological progress could not be ignored or pooh-poohed out of existence.

Nuclear weapons were improved. They became greater in destructive power, smaller in size. “Western Europe, over which hundreds of divisions had struggled a decade previous, shrank to a strip “fifty weapons wide.” Nuclear weapons became a flexible family in their own right. Coupled with delivery systems barely dreamed of twenty years ago, the nuclear weapon was clearly not “just another bomb” but the unquestionably decisive element of war. Almost overnight the revolution in firepower became complete.

No, nuclear weapons could not be ignored. So the problem became one of (1) a realistic revision of missions and organizations to adapt the services to the new weapons in furtherance of national objectives; (2) attempts to fit the new family of weapons into the traditional frameworks; or (3) a combination of the first two solutions.

The Navy came full cycle. During the B-36 hearings a Navy commander testified that he would be willing to stand at one end of a runway while an A-bomb was detonated at the other end. Now hear this from a recent speech by Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air Smith:

“You are familiar with the Navy’s traditional role of keeping the sea lanes open. . . . I would like to talk, however, of changes in weapons development on both sides of the Iron Curtain that place the Navy in a very active rather than passive role.” Mr. Smith went on to say that development of long-range nuclear firepower had led to the essential counter to thermonuclear war. . . . In view of the tremendous capabilities imparted through nuclear development this force might well be termed the nuclear reprisal force.”

The Army found the going tougher

The Army found the going a little tougher. The fact that the delivery system for the new weapons was, initially at least, an air monopoly, meant that the Army was in danger of losing its proprietary rights to the “fire” portion of its old “fire and maneuver” doctrine. Such situation would, in effect, deprive the Army of its offensive mission, shrink it in size, and relegate its role to one of holding actions in selected positions, occupation f a conquered enemy, and maintaining order on the home front. Hardly an appetizing prospect for a proud fighting service with a long record of carrying the war to the enemy. It is not conducive to high morale, glory, decoration, or even promotion.

A recent issue of Army, the official publication of the Association of the US Army, tacitly recognized this fact in an editorial entitled “Not Yet Time to Turn in Your Hat,” an analysis of the Army’s role in an all-out thermonuclear war. It poses a situation in which an enemy nation has been pounded into submission by hydrogen bombs. The Army moves in, in its traditional role.

Says the editorial, “The stench of death covers their shambled land. What have they to fight for? Very little, truly. But human beings are illogical and the instinct to survive and to protect what little they have is strong. . . . . And while the enemy could hardly hope to turn the tide, he could make his final subjection costly if the Army force we send in is not superbly trained, highly mobile, and fully armed with the finest weapons and machines we can give it. . . . Will it not be the Army—the soldiers on the ground—that will deliver the blows that achieve the final decision?”

The editorial continues, describing the beginning of such a war as “surprise, unprovoked assault of fleets of thermonuclear-carrying bombers. . . . We shouldn’t kid ourselves that civil defense, as it is now or even as it might become when the need for it is made more apparent to Americans, can do the job without assistance from the Army. . . . Who better than the Army is equipped by experience and know-how to evacuate masses of homeless people, to provide them with food, shelter, and medicine?”

These are indeed valid and critical missions. The civil defense mission, particularly, is currently suffering from malnutrition, and this would appear to be a logical place to soak up the manpower being fed into the Army’s Reserve program, as the United Kingdom is now doing.

But occupation and civil defense are thankless, unglamorous tasks, so with an eye to a more glittering future the editorialist continues:

“What of tomorrow when manned bomber aircraft disappear and the intercontinental ballistic missile replaces them? Will Army’s role be less or even non-existent? Will it then be time for the soldier to turn in his hat?

“Decidedly not. A weapon system of rockets and missiles ranging from tactical anti-tank rockets, through all ranges up to and including ICBMs, will retain for the Army the dominant position it has always had as the military force of decision. . . . We in the Army should never forget and we should constantly reiterate that guided missiles and rockets are artillery. . . . As every new development in guided missiles marks the obsolescence of the manned bomber, so also does it mark advances in Army artillery.” [Italics supplied.]

The significance of this lengthy quote will, we trust, appear a little later on, for it represents a basic Army dilemma which, like an iceberg, exhibits only a fraction of itself at one time.

The Army, like the Navy, must hold out to itself the promise of a return to the offensive mission which air-atomic power at one time appeared to deny to it. To see how this point of view is virtually a psychological necessity, let’s look at a hypothetical ground combat situation, “before and after” nuclear weapons are introduced into the equation.

The normal pattern of ground action, as exemplified in World War II, called for supporting fire—artillery plus aerial bombardment and strafing, to prepare the way for the infantry to advance toward an objective that w as not considered secure until the infantryman had seized and occupied the ground. Unfortunately, the finite characteristics of conventional chemical high-explosive weapons, whether fired from cannons or dropped from airplanes, seldom subdued all resistance from a determined enemy.

Infantry as the ‘Queen of Battles’

The law of probabilities dictated that, in a given area of any size at all, conventional firepower, no matter how heavily applied, would produce more misses than hits. A given round was far more likely to hit empty real estate than it was to hit a man or a tank. As a result, when the fire lifted and the infantry climbed out of its holes and moved toward its objective, it still had to fight to get there. Infantry had an offensive mission. It was the “Queen of Battles.”

But if the fantastic increases in destructive power occasioned by nuclear weapons are fed into the equation one comes up with quite a completely different set of answers. Now, in any given area, nuclear firepower will produce more hits than misses. In fact, the yield of the weapon can be adjusted to the target to the extent that the enemy can be literally wiped out in entire areas. So even if one buys the hypothesis that an objective has not been won until the foot soldier occupies it, the infantryman no longer has to “seize and hold” merely to “occupy and police.” Nuclear firepower has done the seizing, rendered the decision, and left very little to hold.

If, as an answer to nuclear firepower, the enemy has dispersed enough to minimize its effects, he is so scattered as to be unable to offer effective resistance. On the other hand, if enemy possession of nuclear weapons forces the attacker likewise to disperse, then the attacker finds it difficult to concentrate his forces once more in the classical pattern of counterattack and capture.

For the organization and disposition one must adopt to insure survival under atomic attack means that the ability to fight conventionally has been lost. You cannot have your cake and eat it in the nuclear age.

Thus the movement of ground forces on both sides is halted for all practical purposes until the battle for nuclear supremacy has been decided. As long as the enemy possesses the ability to launch nuclear weapons, surface movement is too costly. Thus, the nuclear battle is truly the decision-making element in modern warfare and it’s a good hunch that everyone now recognizes it.

In such a situation ground forces would play a comparatively static role. Their effect of the outcome of the battle would be largely that of “spotting” for friendly nuclear weapons and helping to create targets for them.

Firepower becomes the ‘King of Battles’

This sort of surface stalemate does considerable damage to the traditional Army doctrine that the weapon supports the force, that firepower paves the way for classical counterattack and capture. The realities of nuclear life are that the forces—and, sea, and air—support the weapon. Firepower is now “King of Battles.”

One answer that is put forth is the idea that nuclear weapons somehow cancel out each other—the so-called atomic stalemate theory. Said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor last January:

“In the Pentagon there are those who focus all their concern on the big nuclear war. There are others who believe that war may assume many forms. The single-type-of-war advocates predict that a future war will open with atomic air attacks upon the United States, followed by our retaliation with atomic weapons. Devastation will be great on both sides; and the outcome of the entire war will depend upon success in this first brief destructive phase. The atomic air-delivered bomb, if the protagonists of this view are correct, will be the primary and decisive weapon. Personally, I rate this concept of war as only one of the forms, and not necessarily the most likely, which war may take. Particularly as atomic destructive capabilities grow, it seems increasingly improbable that an aggressor would intentionally embark on the gamble of atomic world war.”

The implication here is clear and marks a common rationalization of the Army’s atomic dilemma. For an atomic stalemate serves as a justification for the existence of conventional forces, with conventional roles, conventional missions, conventional weapons, and conventional organizations. However, to go back to the battlefield example, nuclear firepower available to both sides is far more likely to produce a stalemate of surface movement—a stalemate which can only be broken if the nuclear capability on one side proves superior to that on the other.

Our national policymakers—led by a former infantryman named Eisenhower—have concluded that nuclear firepower, not the advancing individual rifleman, is the supreme arbiter of modern war.

If this is so, then the need for the kind of aviation the Army says it wants today diminishes sharply. In a war of thermonuclear missiles, no matter who pushes the button, the question of close air support for infantry fades in importance, even to the Army. Likewise, the requirements for “battlefield mobility,” tactical airlift, short-range reconnaissance, communication, and control—all of the so-called “non-duplicating” air needs of the Army—shrink even in terms of the Army’s own criteria.

These unpalatable facts of nuclear life must not be clouded by the Army’s successful use of its “local-war” mission as a smoke-screen. To quote General Taylor once again:

“The Army attaches great significance to these preparations to meet local aggression. It is my feeling, which many I believe share, that with the increasing destructiveness of the atomic stockpiles of the world, the deliberately planned, atomic general war becomes, fortunately, less likely to occur with the passage of time. However, the threat of local aggression is always with us. While one is inclined to believe that the Communist bloc will avoid general nuclear war, it is yet to be proved that the Communist movement has renounced aggression as a tool of policy. Consequently, it appears to me that it is the small war, the misnamed ‘brush-fire,’ which becomes a major threat capable of causing the erosion of the Free World and the loss piecemeal of those things which we are pledged to defend. Furthermore, a local war will be extremely dangerous because of the possibility of its expansion in the unplanned, unwanted general war which is to the interest of the whole world to avoid.

“It is for considerations such as these,” continues General Taylor, “that the Army is bending all its efforts to improve the readiness of its divisions in the strategic reserve at home. It is for this reason, also, that the Army is concerned over the mobility of these forces. The Army is dependent upon the Navy for shipping, and upon the Air Force for aircraft, in order to move these forces rapidly about the world. We are most anxious that we do our utmost in lightening our equipment and reducing our tonnages, in order to make our movement less a burden for our sister services. At the same time, we are constantly urging the importance of our transportation requirements and recommending increased attention to the readiness of our plans and the effectiveness of our joint training.”

Does nuclear firepower by-pass ‘little wars’

The implication in this and other Army statements on peripheral war is that the revolution in nuclear firepower discussed above has somehow by-passed the “little wars” and that only the Army’s conventional capability can deal with them. The further implication is that it can deal effectively with them only if it prods the Air Force into providing strategic mobility for Army forces and if these forces have their own aircraft for battlefield mobility.

There is no quarrel with the thesis that an Army is needed for peripheral wars. And the big war, too, for that matter. But it is proper to raise the point that an unrealistic assessment of the Army role may well be generating unrealistic requirements for airlift and Army-owned air weapons.

First of all, our national policy now recognizes that it is absurd for us to tackle any kind of war, big or small, without nuclear firepower.

Secondly, the Army itself admits that the success of any local operation in which US troops may be engaged depends on winning the air battle. If this is done and we are able to apply our nuclear firepower at will in the local area, the need for US ground combat troops will be small by any previous standards. They will act primarily as the “starch in the collar” for indigenous friendly ground forces. Such small US forces will not require masses of airlift and can be supplied with relative ease at the end of an aerial pipeline.

We must face the fact that all the Army can’t fly. There will never be the airlift for that, not even for the airborne divisions in any numbers. Tactical Air Command already has mobile strike forces, organized and equipped to move into any trouble spot on the globe on short notice with nuclear weapons. Army units needed for such peripheral conflict should be small in size, lightly equipped, and mobile enough to move in consonance with these air striking forces. Here again our nuclear firepower will tell the final tale. But national strategy doesn’t foresee a decisive role for US ground troops in any kind of nuclear war, global or peripheral. And it is even more difficult to foresee a non-nuclear struggle big enough to be called a war.

Therefore, the Army must seek a way to get the ground soldier into the nuclear act. And the most obvious way to do that is to develop delivery systems for nuclear weapons within the ground framework.

In some instances this may appear to make a great deal of sense. In the over-all national strategy, unfortunately, it is already resulting in wasteful duplication of delivery capabilities now in existence or programmed.

More and more the Army looks to the air as the solution to its dilemma, since the air is the logical medium through which to apply nuclear firepower. An attempt was made, through the atomic cannon, to build a nuclear capability within the conventional Army framework. But its cost, lack of mobility, flexibility, and range, combined to doom it to failure from the start. Many persons within the Army will admit that the atomic cannon never was the solution, and it has since been abandoned as the Army’s answer. No, to get into the nuclear act the Army must get hold of its own air weapons. This means both manned aircraft and guided missiles.

Thus far it has met with considerable success. In 1948, when the Key West Agreement was signed, the Army owned about 200 aircraft, primarily light craft for artillery spotting and liaison. By 1955 this had grown to something near 4,000, and current Army programming envisages much higher numbers over the next several years. Already Army aviation represents an investment of nearly half a billion dollars, with annual operating costs of another half a billion. And Lt. Gen. James Gavin, head of Army Research and Development, has said that “twenty thousand planes for the Army might not be enough.” This is about the number the Soviet Air Force has today.

The Army is moving rapidly into the missile field as well. General Taylor testified before Congress that “the Army has developed and has in the hands of troops operational missiles—both defensive and offensive—of the general types needed in future wars. . . . We are working intensively on the longer-range guided missiles, a field in which the Army has had unique success.”

The Army is developing, at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., an intermediate range ballistic missile with a planned range of 1,500 miles. This is an extremely interesting development and would appear to document the thesis that the Army has ambitions far beyond those of the land battle. In earlier doctrinal discussions, before the Army became air-minded, it sought to limit the battlefield to the narrow strip of real estate between the opposing front lines. Whenever AF tactical aircraft attacked targets at any distance behind enemy lines, the Army felt attention was being diverted from the main effort.

Now, the Army view of the battlefield is less sharply defined. Last August Secretary of the Army Brucker said, “There was a time when battle areas were limited. With the increase of the range and accuracy of weapons, the battle area occupied by troops has proportionately increased.”

Evidently Army targets have likewise increased in depth, for it is only recently that the Army began to feel that targets as much as 1,500 miles away were important enough to spend Army money, time, and manpower in destroying them.

In a recent magazine interview, General Taylor went several thousand miles farther than the Redstone missile. In a discussion of guided missiles General Taylor said, “The role of the Army is to destroy enemy ground forces wherever found. And ‘wherever found’ isn’t restrictive.” Presumably it could include Soviet garrisons in Omsk, Tomsk, or Pinsk. Thus, the Army battlefield, sharply limited in discussions of close support aviation, becomes the whole world when you start talking about guided missiles.

In Congressional testimony General Taylor put it this way: “Our Army mission is to destroy an enemy on the ground any place, anywhere. Obviously, range is an advantage for a variety of reasons; because it gives us greater flexibility in choice of targets, allows us to leave our target system far to the rear and not have it transported forward.” No commander can be criticized for seeking to increase the distance between his troops and the enemy. But as Army-delivered air weapons multiply and the Army moves the launching point for those weapons, farther away from the front lines, there begins to be competition and wasteful duplication. Take air space. Even in Korea it was hard to keep track of whose aircraft was where. If the air were filled with supersonic aircraft, missiles, mushroom clouds, and what-have-you, the confusion would, as the saying goes, be utter. That is, if air operations continue first to divide and then to multiply.

A study of Army ambitions in the aviation field is now being made by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to Secretary of Defense Wilson. Whether or not such a study will come to grips with the basic Army dilemma which feeds these ambitions remains to be seen. The debate is a complex one, no longer a matter of whether air or ground is now the dominant factor of war. For all services now appear to be in agreement that air weapons are dominant.

Thus Army ambitions for the long haul seem geared to the development of an intercontinental missile capability with no restrictions as to range or targets. This means, in effect, that its denials that it seeks to create its own Air Force through expanding organic Army aviation become relatively academic. The question is no longer “Shall the Army have its own Air Force?” but “Is the Army to become another Air Force?” If this is borne in mind, then all of the nit-picking over details becomes relatively insignificant.

If you accept the Army requirements for missiles of unlimited range to destroy the enemy “wherever he may be,” the groundwork is laid for all of the supporting elements needed to make such missiles effective. To take only one example. If the Army is to profitably use a missile like Redstone, with its 1,500-mile range, it must have information on its targets, before and after strikes. To get such information it must have long-range aircraft. Nor can these aircraft be what Secretary Brucker describes as “relatively slow, low-flying planes, geared to the environment of the infantryman—just the opposite of the fast, high-flying aircraft of the Air Force.”

For such a reconnaissance vehicle would have to fly far enough, fast enough, and high enough to survive deep in enemy territory—to get to the target and back again. Such a capability would automatically entail all the elements the Air Force now possesses—a base complex, maintenance personnel and facilities, etc. In short, it would be another Air Force.

Research and development spending is a good guide to future composition of forces. According to General Taylor, the Army’s “major development effort today is in the field of missiles in which we have a vital interest.” In the same speech he went on to delineate the extent of that interest by saying,

“We [the Army] have a vital interest in the surface-to-surface missiles-an interest which existed in armies before the day David’s sling-propelled missile was brought to bear on target Goliath. The incorporation of these modern projectiles with warheads of great firepower and of various guidance systems enables the Army to extend radically the range of its familiar artillery techniques against surface targets. We already have in operation units built around the Honest John, and the Corporal [missiles] and Redstone [IRBM] units are just being formed. [This is interesting, because to the best of our knowledge, the question of which service will fire the Redstone had not been determined at press-time.—The Editors.] The Army’s requirement for support from surface-to-surface missiles extends from the front line to any distant target capable of influencing the sustained ground combat for which the Army is responsible. Missiles are vital to us as an important weapon to destroy the ground forces of the enemy, in short, to discharge the primary mission of the Army.”

Nuclear firepower will decide future wars

In summation, the surface forces have now accepted the fact that nuclear firepower is the arbiter of future battles and that the nuclear decision can only be obtained by winning the air battle with air weapons. So, in order to retain this offensive mission the surface forces must get hold of some airpower and some air weapons. They have already done so to a degree, and they obviously intend to try for more.

It is not difficult to understand why there is such duplication of effort. Pride and tradition die hard. The effect of duplication is another matter. It is terribly wasteful in money, military and scientific manpower, manufacturing facilities, resources, electronics, air-base facilities, and even air space. This is not good for the country’s defense posture nor for its economic structure.

In the last analysis, as a high Administration official put it, “Who cares who pushes the button?” It is not really important who uses our airpower as long as it is used effectively. And as long as it is broken into bits and pieces, and parcelled out among three individual services with one mission, it will not be used effectively. Further, as long as there are three individual services, it is difficult to see how overlapping, duplication, and waste—in manpower, money, and facilities—can be prevented.

This is bad news for the taxpayer. For if we are to have three services involved in the primary mission without sharp increases in defense spending, then other necessary but less decisive missions must be neglected to some degree.