Capability x Will = Deterrence

June 1, 1984
Whether in mathematics, law, or analyzing the great issues of our time, it is important to get the basic proposition set down properly. Otherwise, one is unlikely to arrive at a useful solution. Thus it is unfortunate that so many Americans persist in portraying the gravest matters affecting our nation’s security as issues of “war and peace.”

When the National Conference of Catholic Bishops established its Committee on War and Peace, for example, it formulated not only a name for the study commission but also a conceptual framework within which the issues wee to be studied. This was of more than semantic importance. In casting the central problem as one of war and peace, the Bishops made it difficult for Americans to carry on a realistic and helpful discussion about circumstances that deeply concern all of us.

“War and peace” is an erroneous proposition—a nonissue. All rational people desire peace; I know none in favor of war. Debate of nonissues leads nowhere. In this case, it also obscures vital principles that our nation has held dear for two centuries and positions us to forfeit what may be our best opportunity for peace.

The political creed of the United States is to preserve basic individual freedoms—not to seek peace at the price of those freedoms. Our fundamental national values are at variance with those of the Soviet Union, where individual liberties are seen as a threat to the political system instead of its central objective. Over the years, some nations have secured—or sought to secure—peace by the expedient of surrendering their freedoms, but our legacy rejects that solution. Unless we are ready to concede freedom in order to achieve peace, we must state the issue more broadly and less simplistically than “war and peace.”

The real issue is how best to go about keeping our people both alive and free. And the right solution—possibly the only solution—is a strategy of deterrence. While deterrence requires armed preparedness, it is not a strategy that a warlike nation would adopt. It optimizes the capabilities to forestall aggression and to reduce the probability of conflict at any level.

The United States emerged from World War II as the strongest nation in the world. Although mobilized, equipped, and intact, it did not use its power to build an empire, as many dominant nations throughout history had done. Rather, the postwar United States pursued a course aimed only at containing the export of Communist control and at deterring military aggression against the freedoms of the Western democracies.

So, in the aftermath of Korea, the United States addressed seriously the two essentials of a successful strategy of deterrence. This involved not only the acquisition of adequate military capability but also the development of a national consensus of will that the capacity would be used, if need be, to preserve our freedoms. We recognized that reliable deterrence is achieved only when potential adversaries perceive the multiplying effect of our capabilities and our will. As Col. “Abe” Lincoln of West Point used to put it, capability times will equals deterrence. He emphasized that this is a proposition in multiplication, not in addition, for if either of the essential factors is zero, then the product—deterrence—is also zero.

It has become clear that the Soviet Union will feel totally secure and satisfied only when the entire world is, like its own populace, subjugates under Soviet control. It has also become clear that the Soviets have built a military force that awesome in its potential to coerce and intimidate—as well as to wage actual war against—those who have neglected their defenses.

The exercise of that capability by the Soviet Union, either for war or intimidation, must be deterred. If we and our allies would keep our freedom, we must also keep a credible deterrent, incorporating both capability and will. We must have improved conventional forces, because we need to decrease our reliance on nuclear response to non-nuclear attacks—as some say, to raise our nuclear threshold. But conventional forces, no matter how strong or how much improved, will not be enough. Faced with a nuclear-equipped and determined adversary, there is no “conventional” option. We cannot avoid the necessity for both nuclear and conventional forces of a quality and quantity relevant to the threats we face.

Of course, there is a risk to ourselves as well in a strategy of deterrence, because implicit in it is the assumption that freedom is worth fighting for and that we have the guts to fight for it. Since the risk has a nuclear dimension, it has generated understandable fear about the escalating horror that could ensue if deterrence should ever fall. This leads to erosion of the “will” factor in the equation of deterrence. And, unlike a problem in addition, a consequential reduction in the will factor has a devastating effect in decreasing the product: deterrence. Erosion of will also decrease the determination of the nation to prepare itself in a timely, adequate manner, resulting in further erosion of the “capability” factor as well. The synergistic effect is to weaken the product of the factors—deterrence—to a most dangerous degree.

It is perversely ironic that the circumstances under which the continued success of deterrence is least likely are exactly those minimalist solutions advocated by many would-be peacemakers. Never was an acronym more apt than MAD, which describes a unilateral strategy, supported by a grossly inefficient deterrent force, capable only of a Minimum level of Assured Destruction of enemy populations and urban areas. Pursuit of a MAD strategy would provide us with minimal strategic forces, armed with minimal strategic forces, armed with minimally capable weapons, posing a minimal threat to opposing military forces. It would leave us with heap, inefficient weapons that might be used for blowing up cities and killing people by the millions, but—contrary to much of the claptrap written for dissertations or the oped pages—neither the policy of the United States nor its treaty obligations has ever sanctioned the wholesale targeting of concentrations of civilian noncombatants.

What is true, unfortunately, is that misguided minimalists have been successful, all too often, in blocking development of the systems required to maintain an adequate deterrent posture. They have derailed progress toward advanced and accurate weapons that are efficient enough, and in sufficient quantity, to put an adversary’s military might be his command and control system atrisk. To the extent that the Soviet Union perceives that it might be able to wage war without significant losses of the political and military assets it values most highly, the chances that our deterrent strategy will succeed are decreased. The probability of peace is diminished too.

Our national policies, or treaty law, common sense, morality, and military logic all converge in the requirement for a credible deterrent posture. We must couple the will of our nation to deter conflict with the capability of our armed forces to deny an aggressor the benefits—or even the perceived benefits—of aggression. He must be denied any possible calculation of success through military aggression. This is not, as some would have us believe, preparation for Doomsday. On the contrary, it is the most sensible approach to keeping our world at peace without compromise of our freedoms. Let us not be misled by those who pose the great issue of our times simply as one of “war and peace.” As Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger said in the Oxford Union debate earlier this year, the real issue is freedom—lack of it.

I have just reread the Declaration of Independence. It does not speak of war and peace. It defines rights of people and governments and declares denial of those rights unacceptable. That is a declaration to which our American political ancestors pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. The current generation of Americans should do no less.

As Americans, let’s make sure we have our basic propositions right before we proceed. The issue is not merely one of war and peace, but 4rather how to preserve our freedoms with the least risk of war. So far, the best answer for us has been the possession of the capability and the will for a credible deterrent. For the future, our best bet is to make sure that both our capability and our will are adequate for the job.