Another Look at the Importance of Overseas Bases

May 1, 1960

In a recent article in AIR FORCE [“The Importance of Overseas Bases in Unlimited War,” December 1959] Maj. Gen. Dale O. Smith, Commander of the 313th Air Division on Okinawa, and a well known authority on strategy and military doctrine, defends overseas bases against their depreciators. He states, among other things:

• Withdrawal from overseas bases and retreat to that “old deceptive girl .. . fortress America,” could be fatal to the free world.

• As launching bases for missiles, they present the aggressor in unlimited war with a dilemma: He either must destroy them first, in which case their destruction would provide added warning time to the continental United States, or he must launch his missiles to achieve simultaneous impact on targets overseas and in the United States, in which case the enemy missiles bound for our continent would be detected in time for us to launch our overseas missiles toward the enemy launching sites so as to catch them before they are fired at the overseas bases.

Since General Smith cites an article of mine1 to illustrate the depreciation of overseas bases ( it is, in fact, the only one cited), I hope I can use the occasion to correct this impression: to make clear just where we agree and where we do differ, and to elaborate on some questions of offense strategy that are of general interest and have been rather generally misunderstood. I am grateful to General Smith for providing an opportunity for me to emphasize several points which are made concisely in the article he cited and at greater length in a more extended version of my article published, with the same title, as P-1472, The RAND Corporation, November 6, 1958.2

Some of these points I hope he will find reassuring.

On the importance of Overseas Bases

First, I do not depreciate the value of overseas bases. I regard them as indispensable. Furthermore, my estimate of the character and occupation of that “old deceptive girl … fortress America” coincides precisely with that of General Smith. In the article ( short version), I dealt at some length, as I made explicit: “.. . with only one of the functions of overseas bases: their use as a support for the strategic deterrent force” (page 229). But I did add, briefly:

“They have a variety of important military, political, and economic roles which are beyond the scope of this paper. Expenditures in connection with the construction or operation of our bases, for example, are a form of economic aid and, moreover, a form that is rather palatable to the Congress. There are other functions in a central war where their importance may be very considerable and their usefulness in a limited war might be substantial” ( pp. 229, 230).

On the use of overseas bases to support operations in a limited war, the longer version of the article goes on to say:

“Their importance here is both more considerable and likely to be more lasting than their increasingly restricted utility to deter attack on the United States. Particularly in conventional limited wars, destructive force is delivered in smaller units and, in general, requires a great number of sorties over an extended period of time. It is conceivable that we might attempt the intercontinental delivery of iron bombs as well as ground troops and ground support elements. The problem of intercontinental vs. overseas bombers is mainly a matter of costs, provided we have the time and freedom to choose the composition of our force and our budget size. But there would be enormous differences in costs between distant and close-in repeated delivery at a given rate of high explosives” (p. 31, DBT —longer version).

In short, I think overseas bases have a very great value in both nuclear and nonnuclear limited wars, a value most obvious in the nonnuclear case. Moreover, while I think central war is our most fundamental problem as I indicate in that article, I regard the contingency of limited war as an important one to be reckoned with.

As for the functions of overseas bases in a central war, I think several are important. There are other uses for overseas bases in central war besides deterrence. On this, DBT ( longer version) states:

“In case deterrence fails, they might support a counterattack which could blunt the strength of an enemy follow-up attack, and so reduce the damage done to our cities. Their chief virtue here is precisely the proximity to the enemy which makes them problematic as a deterrent. Proximity means shorter time to target and possibly larger and more accurately delivered weapons—provided, of course, the blunting force survives the first attack. This is not likely to be a high-confidence capability of the sort we seek in the deterrent itself; but it might make a very real difference under some circumstances of attack, particularly if the enemy attack were poorly coordinated, as it might be if the war were started by accident. In this case the first wave might be smaller and less well organized than in a carefully prepared attack. The chance of even some of our unprotected planes or missiles surviving would be greater. Moreover, a larger portion of the attacker’s force would remain on base, not yet ready for a following attack. Using some portion of our force not in retaliation but to spoil the follow-up raid by killing or at least disrupting the matching of bombers with tankers, bombers with bombers, bombers with decoys, and bombers with missiles could reduce both the number of attackers reaching our defenses and the effectiveness of their formation for getting through. It would be a fatal mistake to count on poor planning by an aggressor, but, given the considerable reduction in damage it might enable, it is prudent to have the ability to exploit such an error” (pp. 29, 30, DBT—longer version).

I added the qualification that a force capable of blunting a poorly started aggression might suggest an intent to strike first unless it were coupled with a very strong second-strike capability, that is, the ability to strike back even after a well coordinated surprise attack. This is an important proviso since guaranteeing a second-strike capability is the most critical item on our agenda for the 1960s—one which is neither automatic, as the believers in the theory of a stable balance of terror think, nor easy, as the holders of the Minimum Deterrence theory suggest. Simply putting soft fixed missiles on overseas bases will not solve the complex problem of deterrence. They would not be likely to survive a well coordinated attack by the aggressor. It could actually worsen the problem of stability—unless at the same time we develop a very strong second-strike capability in some other way.

The quoted passage has become increasingly relevant with the growing currency of the Minimum Deterrent theory. Minimum Deterrence theorists agree that deterrence is important but reject any attempt to fight a war, or even to survive and to alleviate the damage to our cities in case deterrence fails. They regard such attempts as unnecessary because they feel deterrence can be made very certain with a rather small expenditure of effort. And they regard a capability to limit damage to ourselves as actually bad because they think it necessarily provocative and destabilizing. I strongly dissent from the Minimum Deterrence theory as I suspect General Smith does also. Deterrence is vital and feasible but will require a great deal of effort, and even a good deterrent can fail. Therefore, we can make good use of preparations against the contingency of failure. Such insurance, I believe, need not be destabilizing.

A critique of the popular Minimum Deterrence theory, however, is another and a longer story. The point here is that, like General Smith, I think deterrence is necessary but not enough. To limit damage and to fight a war in case deterrence fails, overseas-based forces, along with the active and passive defense of our cities, can serve a very useful role.

However, for the deterrent function itself, I indicated overseas bases continue to have some use:

“… even with the projected force of aerial tankers, the greater part of our force, which will be manned bombers, cannot be used at all in attacks on the Soviet Union without at least some use of overseas areas” (DBT—shorter version, p. 224).

Ground refueling, poststrike and, in some cases, even prestrike will be essential for our bombers for some time to come.

It is apparent from the above that, while General Smith and I may weigh the importance of various uses of our overseas bases differently, we are in agreement that overseas bases are important.

A Dilemma in Attacking Bases Overseas and on the Continent

Yet, we do have some disagreements. The most important stems from an assumption, implicit in General Smith’s argument, that the United States should or would fire ballistic missiles from overseas areas or from the ZI on the strength solely of radar detections. We disagree totally here. But before turning to our disagreement on this central question, it would be good to analyze the dilemma of coordination which General Smith and many other responsible strategists suggest is posed to an aggressor by the mere presence of soft IRBMs overseas.

The reader will recall the dilemma suggested. Even in a coordinated attack, the enemy must, we are told, either ( 1) give extra warning to the continent, or ( 2) never complete his salvo ( specifically, that part of it directed overseas). Our differences on the subject of this suggested dilemma can be settled by calculation, using only public information. Moreover, even if we supposed, for the sake of the analysis, that we were to open fire on the evidence of radar blips alone ( even on that of a single detection), the calculations do not support the view that there is a dilemma.

Therefore, in this section I shall put aside the critical question as to whether we should or would fire ballistic missiles on the strength of radar indications. Let us assume we shall and examine this rather widely accepted dilemma of coordination.

Take first the case proposed by General Smith in which the Russians launch a missile from Vladivostok to some target near San Francisco, such as Hamilton AFB, and expect to follow it with another missile from Vladivostok to a target on Okinawa, timed to arrive at the launch base as the first missile lands in the vicinity of San Francisco. A missile can be sent from Vladivostok to the target at San Francisco on any of a great variety of trajectories which would not be within the line of sight of a radar placed on Okinawa. However, this missile certainly could be seen from the BMEWS station at Alaska. Could it be seen soon enough for the Okinawa base to launch its missiles toward Vladivostok and to destroy the Vladivostok target before it launches missiles at the Okinawa complex itself

If the Russians launch their missile on a flat trajectory, total flight time to the San Francisco area would amount to some twenty-four minutes. If we make the arbitrary but generous assumption that the lower beam of the ballistic missile radar has a zero degree angle of elevation or, in other words, that the only limitation is the horizon, radar intercept would take place in eleven minutes after launch, leaving thirteen minutes before impact. And three minutes before the launching of the enemy missile against the Okinawa target. In these three minutes, in order to prevent launching of the enemy missiles toward Okinawa, we would have (1) to interpret the radar signals and recognize them as a raid, (2) get the decision made to retaliate, ( 3) have this decision transmitted and received, ( 4 ) prepare, countdown, and launch our own missiles from Okinawa, and ( 5 ) cover the trajectory from Okinawa to the Vladivostok target. However, our time of flight alone ( assuming we also use a short low-angle trajectory) is very considerably longer than the three minutes allotted. To put it briefly, it is infeasible.

If we vary this case slightly by having both sides use minimum energy rather than low-angle trajectories, it remains true that our time of flight alone exceeds the interval between detection of the San Francisco-bound missile and the launching of the missile toward Okinawa.

Of course, it would be possible to put another radar in between Okinawa and Alaska, for example, in Northern Japan, which would detect the missile launched from Vladivostok toward the San Francisco area a few minutes sooner. But the example proposed is arbitrary, and the enemy need not launch his missile at the San Francisco target from Vladivostok. In fact, flight times would be considerably shorter if he launched them from Kamchatka or Anadyr, which are closer. Flight time from Anadyr to a target in the vicinity of San Francisco on a low-angle trajectory would amount to some sixteen minutes. For the purposes of detecting such a missile our Alaskan stations are almost ideally placed. But if we again assume that only the horizon is the limit, detection would take place in four minutes, leaving twelve minutes to impact. And only two minutes until the enemy launches his missile against the Okinawan bases from Vladivostok.

We have, surely, some freedom as to where we may locate our missile bases and where we might build our new radars. But the enemy has an even greater freedom as to the choice of launching sites within his national boundaries and also in the Atlantic and Pacific.

So far we have only considered an example of launching against bases at San Francisco and Okinawa. However, we should consider various attacks from a multiplicity of hypothetical launching sites against a multiplicity of targets. We might vary the overseas locations of (1) our missiles or (2) our radars. The enemy can vary (1) the size or maximum range of the missiles he uses, (2 ) his missile trajectories, and (3) his launching point and target pairings. This takes a good deal more calculation, but it is necessary to give a fair test to the hypothesis that there is a dilemma.

A variety of such map exercises fails to sustain the view that the time from the first detection will be enough to disrupt the opening salvo against us. When such exercises are run through, the typical results for an enemy attack using land-based missiles only and low-angle trajectories leave a maximum of twenty minutes or so between first detection and impact; for attacks using missiles launched from submarines on station, at most about ten minutes even if we assume the launchings are detected without delay.

In either case, the entire sequence of enemy firings against overseas bases can be completed in less time after the first detection than would be involved in time of flight of our counterattacks. The inadequacy of a strategy in which we depended on soft fixed missiles and ballistic missile early warning would be even more obvious, of course, if we considered not just flight time but, more realistically, time of preparation, and especially, time to interpret, to decide, and to transmit the decision.

In fact, the dilemma seems plausible only because we forget how short these flight times are, and, in particular, because we forget that the enemy doesn’t need to fire from a single point, like Vladivostok, toward widely dispersed points, like Okinawa and Hamilton AFB, at San Francisco. The selection of launch points offers a natural way of compressing total time of flight as well as the interval between first and last launch for a simultaneous impact salvo. This makes extreme lofting of trajectories over short distances quite unnecessary.

General Smith agrees that for the Soviets to compute a time for the ballistic missile salvo presents no major problem. We would agree then that we should not rely on poor enemy coordination for deterrence. The calculations I have described make clear that a well coordinated simultaneous time-on-target strategy does not permit time enough for disruption.

The Other Horn of the Supposed Dilemma

So far we have discussed only the simultaneous impact strategy and the amount of warning overseas bases might get from radar detection of missiles bound for targets in the United States. If the enemy thought seriously that we would fire on the basis of radar warning, his strategy would involve not simultaneous time on target, but an essentially simultaneous penetration of all warning barriers. In this case, well coordinated firings against overseas bases add no extra warning to that available from attack on continental bases. In other words, the second half of the dilemma, like the first, is not a real one.

First consider radar warnings of ballistic missiles attacking Okinawa or other overseas bases. In most overseas areas, and in Okinawa, too, there are, of course, no ballistic missile radars. It would cost over a quarter of a billion dollars to put in one such radar and its associated communications and other systems. Even if we neglect “noise” problems, it is doubtful that such a radar would guarantee any significant detection time at Okinawa of missiles launched against Okinawan targets. They might be launched from much closer in than Vladivostok: from China, for example, or from a submarine. Even if there were a radar there, detection would hardly precede bomb impact by very much.

Warning at Okinawa by radar penetration by missiles on the way there could be timed simultaneously with radar penetration by missiles on the way to the continent. This clearly would provide no extra warning to the bases on the continent. In fact, report of the bomb impact at Okinawa itself, so long as it was timed to coincide with or follow radar warning of the Hamilton AFB-bound missiles, would add no information needed for our decision to respond, if we accept the basic premise of the dilemma that radar warning of the Hamilton AFB-bound missile itself will trigger the most momentous of all decisions—the decision to wage World War III.

Analogous comments are appropriate for most overseas locations. To sum up this second half of the dilemma: Against an opponent willing to fire missiles on the basis of radar detections alone, the best strategy of attack is to penetrate warning simultaneously. In this case, overseas areas have less warning time than might be available to deep continental bases. And the overseas areas do not add to the warning available to bases on the continent.

The Decision to Fire Missiles

In analyzing the first half of the supposed dilemma we showed that a well coordinated simultaneous time-on-target strategy could be completed without interruption by counterfire from overseas bases. But if the time after detecting the first enemy missile is too short for us to prevent the launching of his last missile in a well coordinated salvo, isn’t there enough time to get our own missiles off before his warheads explode at our bases? If so, this could mean saving our ZI-based missiles as well as those based overseas.

In the event of a simultaneous time-on-target salvo, continental bases have as much time between detection of the first enemy missile and its impact as the overseas bases. And more time than the overseas bases in case the salvo is scheduled for simultaneous detection. But to answer this question we have to consider seriously much more difficult matters than the measurement of times on trajectory and the like. We have to consider the decision problem on firing missiles, which we have so far deferred. On this subject, I stated:

“The decision to fire a missile with a thermonuclear warhead is much harder to make than a decision simply to start a manned aircraft on its way, with orders to return to base unless instructed to continue to its assigned target. This is the ‘fail-safe’ procedure practiced by the US Air Force. In contrast, once a missile is launched, there is no method of recall or deflection which is not subject to risks of electronic or mechanical failure. Therefore, such a decision must wait for much more unambiguous evidence of enemy intentions. It must and will take a longer time to make and is less likely to be made at all. Where more than one country is involved, the joint decision is harder still, since there is opportunity to disagree about the ambiguity of the evidence, as well as to reach quite different interpretations of national interest” (DBT—shorter version, p. 226).

There are many authoritative statements in the public press which suggest that the United States is not likely to make so momentous a decision on the basis of radar information. For example, Gen. Thomas S. Power, Commander in Chief, Strategic Air Command, in recent testimony before the House Subcommittee on Appropriations, states:

“I cannot see for the foreseeable future how we can launch them [ballistic missiles] on the basis of radar detection alone. This is why their sites have to be hardened, and this is why they must be complemented with a manned bomber force that we can get off the ground and ensure survival.”3

Other high military figures, for example, Vice Adm. John H. Sides, the Director of the Weapon Systems Evaluation Group in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, have publicly stated much the same thing. And both a past and the current President of the United States have recently made very emphatic statements on the necessity for the President himself to participate in any decision whatsoever to use nuclear weapons. The decision to fire a missile is a decision to fire nuclear weapons.

It is, in fact, the decision for World War III.

It is not, then, United States policy to let the decision for World War III be made by a piece of electronic equipment on the evidence of some electromagnetic signals. I think our policy in this respect quite sound. Radar or infrared signals might be reduced or suppressed, or they might be confused by “noise,” that is, in General Power’s phrase, “spurious signals”—either man-made like the Sputniks he mentioned or simply part of the variable natural background.

Every sensing system with a significant probability of detecting a raid of a given magnitude has a finitely probable false-alarm rate that goes with this capability. And above all, the time available for receiving such signals, transmitting them, processing them, and using them for decision is likely to be terribly short and possibly nonexistent. The time between impact and first detection by radar of land-based missiles launched along fixed flat trajectories might vary between zero and two minutes overseas and between thirteen and sixteen minutes in the United States. Flight time of missiles launched from submarines on station against bases deep in the United States comes to about ten minutes; against coastal or island bases, much less.

For such reasons, the security of our retaliatory force must not rely on warning and timely reaction as its sole or principal defense. This is true for our bombers as well as our missiles even though the bombers can be committed to the air more swiftly since this commitment can be reversed. In spite of this advantage, the Air Force has recommended a mode of protection for the B-52s which does not depend on warning; namely, to keep a fraction up in the air at all times. In fact, it is now widely recognized that in the future we will have to emphasize modes of defense of our retaliatory force such as mobility, concealment, extreme hardness, and dispersal, which do not depend for their success on receiving warning.

The remarks on the coordination of ballistic attacks on our overseas bases which General Smith cited were made in the context of an analysis of the decision to station soft fixed Thors and Jupiters overseas. I said:

“… we must face seriously the question whether this move will in fact assure either the ability to retaliate or the decision to attempt it, on the part of our allies or ourselves. And we should ask at the very least whether further expansion of this policy will buy as much retaliatory power as other ways of spending the considerable sums involved.”

A justification for expanding this policy in terms of the coordination dilemma will not hold water. Soft fixed missiles will not assure retaliation against a coordinated attack. And in judging whether a dollar spent in this way or on some alternative is more productive for the specific purpose of assuring retaliation in the face of a well planned assault one must take into account the fact that the overseas bases are open to a wider variety of attacks with little or no warning than our ZI bases and to attacks with larger payloads and greater accuracies.

Let me expand a little on the continuing relevance in the 1960s of these special problems of overseas bases. In order to minimize warning, the enemy has to restrict the size and composition of his initial attack. For example, he may restrict it to ballistic missiles or even to submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which are in general less accurate and more limited in payload than aircraft. Since we may survive his initial warningless attack, for example, by shelter, one possible tactic of the enemy is immediately to follow his ballistic missile attack with bombers, using the missiles essentially to pin us down until the bombers arrive. The smaller the detection time we have against bombers, the more feasible is this pin-down tactic.

Overseas bases suffer from the disadvantage that they are subject to an initial missile wave with greater accuracies and bomb yields ( making blast protection harder), and the missiles also can be followed by bomber attacks more quickly (making the pin-down requirements less severe). On some overseas locations, no substantial warning is feasible against even the bomber attack so that these could be used on an initial wave.

In short, the fact which General Smith mentions, that overseas bases in general have only a small interval between first detection and arrival at their base of enemy manned bomber attacks, has significance even in the ballistic missile age.

Overseas bases are of great importance, but not all arguments to support their importance are right. Among those that are wrong is the notion that in the face of a well coordinated enemy missile attack, missiles placed overseas without protection are sure either to retaliate and disrupt the opening enemy salvo or to provide extra warning for the continental US. They can guarantee neither one.

But deterring a well coordinated thermonuclear attack on the US, while vital, is by no means all we want to do. We must have insurance that we can limit damage in case deterrence fails whether by accident or deliberation. And overseas bases can help disrupt the poorly coordinated attacks that are now likely in the event that the war starts by accident ( and this, in turn, if we have a good high-confidence deterrent, is more likely to be the way a war starts if it starts at all). Finally, the overseas bases play a principal role in limited wars.

“The Delicate Balance of Terror,” in opposition to those who think deterrence in the 1960s is automatic or easy to come by, argues that, while feasible, it will be hard and it will require a considerable effort. As for overseas bases, while these have continuing value and a variety of functions, the article stated that assuring retaliation against enemy attack would be particularly difficult close in.

We must be prepared for an increase in the weight of attack which the Soviets can deliver with little warning and the growth of a significant Russian capability for an essentially “warningless” attack. This is true for the ZI as well as overseas, but the overseas bases are subject to a wider variety of attacks with shorter warning and with larger yields and greater accuracy than bases at intercontinental range.4

This is a statement of fact. It is not inconsistent with the fact that overseas bases continue to have I many uses and, like our alliances themselves, are indispensable.


1. “The Delicate Balance of Terror,” Foreign Affairs, January 1959; AIR FORCE, February 1959.

2. The more extended version of the article was not easily available to General Smith on Okinawa. The shorter version, while I believe quite correct, was too brief to permit emphasis on the points to be elaborated now. In what follows I shall refer to the RAND P-1472 as “DBT—longer version” and to the Am FORCE and Foreign Affairs form of the paper as “DBT—shorter version.”

3. A more extensive quotation from General Power’s testimony is useful here.

“Let us imagine these BMEWSs have been built, and it is 2:30 in the morning. The man operating the BMEWS has me on one end of the telephone and [the Commander of the North American Air Defense Command] on another circuit. The conversation goes something like this:

” ‘The radars have picked up 1,000 objects. The computer says they are ballistic missiles, and they will impact in the United States.’

“I have about twelve minutes left because it took him at least three minutes to do that.

“What am I going to do

“I can launch the alert force.

“. . . I will do that without any hesitancy because I know that, if this turns out to be a spurious signal, no harm is done. . . . But in this time period we will also have a button whereby I can send the ICBMs on their way. I will have missiles at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Cheyenne, Offutt, Fairchild, and—I don’t know whether Topeka will be in at that time or not, but let us assume it is.

“I can press that button and send the missiles on their way.

“Do I want to do it, assuming I had authority to do so? Because sure as shooting, in another two or three minutes, this lad will say, ‘I am sorry, but those blips have disappeared off the scope.’ They were Sputniks, interference, or something like that. Therefore, I say the missile will have to ride out the attack.”

4. I am very grateful to Mr. Michael Arnsten of the RAND Corporation for advice and assistance in the analysis of ballistic missile attacks described in this paper.

Dr. Albert J. Wohlstetter is Associate Director of Projects for the RAND Corporation and one of the nation’s leading strategic analysts. He was adviser to the US delegation at the Geneva conference on the danger of surprise attack in 1958. Dr. Wohlstetter, who was educated at the City College of New York and Columbia University, wrote “The Delicate Balance of Terror” which appeared in the February ’59 issue of this magazine, after first appearing in the January 1959 issue of Foreign Affairs. Dr. Wohlstetter is also the author of many other studies.