The Nuclear Stalemate Fallacy

Aug. 1, 1956
We hear a lot about “nuclear stalemate” these days, and I think it’s time we took a good look at the theory and its implications. Briefly, the nuclear stalemate concept holds that when both the United States and the Soviet Union possess an effective strategic atomic capability, neither side will allow total war to occur on the grounds that it would be tantamount to mutual suicide.

This sounds good if you say it quickly. But I suggest it is largely based on wishful thinking and superficial analysis. Far more thought has been given to the implications of such a stalemate than to its likelihood. Yet, such a concept, should it become generally accepted, would materially affect world power relationships, and more particularly the use of military force as an instrument of national policy. At minimum it has now been repeated so often, and in so many forms, that it already is influencing our current defense policy by channeling resources into limited or conventional war capabilities to the detriment of home defense and of the capacity for total war.

The atomic stalemate proponents are not limited to United States circles. The New York Times, in an article datelined Moscow, December 17, 1955, stated that:

“The Soviet leaders have explicitly recognized that last summer’s Geneva Conference of the big four heads of government ushered in an era of atomic stalemate in which war among the great powers is excluded.” This eager acceptance of the implications of atomic parity by the Soviet leaders makes it all the more important that we be sure of our ground before we rely on it. The very fact that the Soviets endorse the concept would seem to support the view expressed by Paul Nitze in the January 1956 issue of Foreign Affairs that the growth of the atomic stockpile “does not tend to inhibit action by the Soviets,” but “merely inhibits the possibility of action by ourselves.”

What is the truth in this stalemate matter? Are we deluding ourselves and the public into a false sense of security by hoping for a situation which is highly unlikely to occur? Or, can we actually attain uneasy peace through mutual terror, as suggested by Mr. Churchill?

The stalemate concept appears to stem from two assumptions—first, that in a massive atomic exchange there would be no “winner”; and second, that in such an exchange both sides would lose. This may sound like saying the same thing in two different ways, but in this case it is not. There are historical precedents where two nations had relatively equal military power and as a result neither felt confident of success in a test of force. Here a military stalemate was apparent and a balance of power existed. The balance resulted solely, however, from the inability to win by war. It did not include the additional constraint implicit in the conviction that, not only could one not win but also that war would result in one’s annihilation.

The new notion, therefore, in the stalemate concept is that of probable loss or national suicide. Thus, the risk inherent in pursuing an objective by total atomic war would seem to be substantially increased. The price of success would seem to include the destruction of one’s homeland and civilization, the very things wars are fought to preserve. The joint communiqué issued at the end of the Soviet leaders’ recent visit to India made this point clear. It said, in part, that at Geneva the great powers recognized “the futility of war, which, owing to the development of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, could only bring disaster to mankind.” (New York Times, December 14, 1955.)

There seems to be general agreement that if total nuclear warfare necessarily involves massive reciprocal damage “to both sides,” it is less likely to occur than a war where respective military capabilities acted primarily to limit the prospect of early victory. If we are to have a valid stalemate condition, however, it follows that there must be a reasonable prospect that an exchange of atomic blows will, in fact, take place. This means that both sides must have adequate weapons. In addition, they must have adequate delivery means and inadequate defenses. Without weapons, there is no ability to retaliate, hence, no parity. Without the means of delivery, weapons are useless. Against an effective defense, the mere possession of weapons and the means of delivery will not insure success, nor would such defenses make mutual suicide inevitable. Thus, a stalemate between any two countries does not depend solely on the adequacy of their atomic stockpiles.

What are the alternative factors that may enter into a stalemate condition? Until we have considered these, and their likelihood of occurrence, we cannot be certain that atomic parity holds out any hope of either permanent or temporary security from total war.

Atomic Monopoly

If one nation has nuclear weapons and its opponent has none, there is no question of parity or stalemate. The nation which has them can use them without fear of retaliation. This has been clearly evidenced by the pronouncements and defense plans of the US during the last decade. In the hands of an aggressive power such a monopoly would have spelled world victory and world dominance, a victory without fear of retaliation in kind. In such a situation there can be no atomic stalemate and consequently no deterrent to total atomic war.

Atomic Parity and Delivery Monopoly

If two nations have enough atomic weapons to destroy one another, there still remains the problem of delivering them. If the delivery capability is unbalanced, if one side can put his weapons on target and the other cannot, a nuclear stalemate cannot exist. The nation who can deliver can safely engage in strategic atomic warfare without fear of retaliation. For a valid stalemate condition we must assume, therefore, that both sides have both the weapons and the means of delivering them. But is even this degree of equality enough to produce a stalemate?

The Defense Factor

We have still a third factor to consider—the defenses. Here, three conditions may exist:

  • Both defenses may be equally ineffective in intercepting an attack,
  • One side may have what it considers a highly effective intercept capability, or
  • Both sides may have equal confidence in their ability to intercept an attack by the other.

How do the prospects for a nuclear stalemate stand up under each of these conditions?

Equally Effective Defenses

Earlier in this analysis we pointed out that there were two sides to the atomic warfare coin—the poor prospects of winning and the good prospects of being annihilated. Deterrence through stalemate is more of a result of the latter prospect, that of mutual suicide, than from the former. Thus, the presence of highly effective defenses on both sides should largely eliminate the fear of destruction by retaliation and with it the main deterrence to a strategic atomic exchange.

The fact that the enemy defenses are also effective is not per se a deterrent since it only reduces the aggressor’s prospects of a successful penetration. As long as a nation can accurately compare its own defense capability with that of the enemy, then it will be willing to chance an attack on the theory that there is no harm in trying. It would be a worthwhile risk. If either side finds he is able to penetrate the other’s defenses while his own remain effective, that side would reap a relatively certain victory. On the other hand penetration under these conditions would probably be a gradual affair since it would take time to break down the opposing defenses. Thus, should either side feel that they were losing in this attempt, there would still be time for them to call a halt to hostilities on the most favorable terms possible to themselves. They could surrender or negotiate without subjecting themselves to the type of total destruction implicit in an initial, pre-planned, atomic exchange in a war where the defenses were known to be ineffective.

In this case, where we have parity in all aspects of strategic atomic warfare, including defense, there may exist some deterrent to starting a war, but certainly no deterrent to using a total atomic strategy once a war starts. The stalemate condition here is minimal. It contains a reduced prospect of victory for the aggressor but not the fear of mutual suicide. As such it does not guarantee that the strategic atomic arm will not be used. This condition is less of an atomic stalemate than a case of relatively balanced strategic power; a condition which historically has never affected how a war is fought but only the likelihood of its beginning.

One-Sided Defenses

Progress in developing weapon systems varies with different nations. Depending on the emphasis placed on research and development as a whole, and to selected areas of research in particular, some countries will obtain temporary advantages in certain fields. We can assume that this will be true of air defense technology and that there will be times when a nation has, in its opinion, the means of effectively intercepting the primary delivery systems of its potential enemies. This being a likelihood, if not a certainty, we must also consider the impact of an unequal defense capability on the stalemate concept.

If one nation is confident it can intercept and destroy the atomic delivery effort of an opponent, it is the same, for planning purposes, as if the opponent lacked an adequate delivery force. Thus, a serious imbalance in defense capabilities would have the same result as a delivery monopoly.

It seems clear, therefore, that if one nation considers it has an absolute, or relatively absolute, defense against an opponent’s strategic delivery force, it will feel free to initiate total atomic war in pursuit of its objectives.

In addition, if such a nation has aggressive intentions, it is actually invited to use its atomic weapons strategically since this will insure success without risk. Under this condition—parity in both weapons and delivery forces, but imbalance in defense effectiveness—there would be no “stalemate” but rather an invitation to aggressive ventures on the part of the nation with the better defense.

Mutually Ineffective Defenses

When neither side considers it has an adequate defense system, we would seem to have a true state of parity on the strategic plane. If we further assume that neither surprise nor the initiative can be decisive in preventing retaliation, then the requirements for an atomic stalemate are met. An attack by either side results in massive retaliation by the other. In the ensuing exchange neither stands to gain a clear advantage, and both face the prospect of substantial loss, if not annihilation.

We can certainly agree that under this one condition—where atomic stocks are adequate, both delivery systems are considered effective, and neither side can count on his defenses—the atomic stalemate concept appears to be valid. Nuclear parity, and hence a stand-off, could exist and no two nations would be likely to engage in total atomic war except in desperation. Here, at long last, we find some foundation in fact for the stalemate concept. But what are the probabilities that this condition will prevail?

The Prospects

Thus, there are five possible conditions of strength that influence the relative ability of two nations to wage total atomic warfare: (a) Atomic monopoly; (b) Atomic parity, and delivery monopoly; (c) Atomic, delivery, and effective defense parity; (d) Atomic and delivery parity, but one-sided defense; and (e) Parity in atomic stocks and delivery, and mutually ineffective defenses. Of these five possibilities, only the latter provides the minimum requirements both for a deterrent to aggression, and also a deterrent to a strategic atomic exchange arising out of a localized war. Only when such a condition prevails can we feel confident a stalemate to total war exists and hence that limited wars might be the primary “hot” means of conflict. The varied rates at which weapon systems have evolved in different countries in recent years, the occurrence and likelihood of technological breakthroughs in the field of missiles, radar, atomic power, etc., all suggest that it is dangerous to assume that this one combination of circumstances will prevail for any length of time. Thus, the concept of a nuclear stalemate between the USSR and US must be accepted with serious reservations, even in the immediate future.

For ten or more years following World War II the US had a practical monopoly on atomic weapons and delivery means. No condition of stalemate, or parity, existed, and had we been obliged to defend ourselves, we would not have hesitated to use these weapons strategically against the aggressor. Today two or more great powers are coming into relative equivalence in atomic stocks. Is this true of delivery capabilities? The current view that the Soviet has, or will soon have, the means to deliver massive attacks against the US seems to ignore the worth of advance bases in this operation. Our close-in bases should give us a decisive delivery advantage until a true massive intercontinental capability is achieved, first by aircraft and then by missiles.

Accept for the sake of argument, however, that both sides have an intercontinental capability in manned aircraft. We can then agree that an era of parity in weapons and delivery, with no evidence as yet of effective defenses, is at hand. If so, we may face a short period wherein a stalemate seems reasonable. Even this, however, is doubtful. Both sides are working frantically on air defenses and on guided missiles. Should either achieve what it considers a relatively effective air defense, the equation will again become unbalanced. Even if this defense can only cope with intercontinental manned bombers, if the US had it, we would be relatively free from the threat of atomic attack at home until the enemy acquired either forward bases or intercontinental missiles. Not so the USSR, whose defense would have to cope not only with manned bombers but also with medium-range missiles to be effective. Thus, the balance is far from permanent, at least from the point of view of the US.

The closer the threat, the more effective the defenses have to be, since they have to cope with a more diversified penetration force and with vehicles that can sacrifice range for performance. In this respect the USSR and Western Europe are both clearly at a disadvantage. Even so, we cannot exclude the possibility that the Soviets will be the first to develop an effective defense based on missiles or some other, now unknown, devices. Should this occur the stalemate would again disappear, and they might feel free to exploit their good fortune and attack the Free World.

Thus, the advent of missiles threatens to upset the present prospect for a temporary period of stalemate if accompanied by progress in defense against manned aircraft. There should normally be a time when short-range missiles are effective and intercontinental ones will still be unreliable. If this condition is accompanied by effective defenses against manned bombers, an imbalance occurs in favor of the nation with forward bases. It is akin to the case where one side has a monopoly of delivery capacity. It is also a very likely development for the immediate future in view of the emphasis now being given to both air defense and missile development.

If the US can get a “pay-off” in its search for a defense against long-range manned aircraft before the USSR has a truly intercontinental delivery system, there may never be any stalemate period at all. In view of this and of our analysis, I would conclude that reliance on, or use of, the stalemate thesis in formulating defense policy is to lean on a very weak reed. I suggest that the so-called atomic “stalemate,” or “stand-off,” is more of a psychological than a real deterrent. At best it is a cliché born of the natural tendency to rationalize away the prospects of total atomic war. Thus, two principles seem clear:

In order that a deterrent to total atomic war exist, as a result of a “stalemate” condition, both sides must have stocks of atomic weapons and the means for their delivery while at the same time lacking defenses capable of protecting their vital areas from destruction by the enemy. Without all three of these conditions there can be no valid “stalemate” and no deterrent either to initiating war or to the strategic exchange of atomic weapons should a war occur.

The normal processes of evolution of weapon systems, coupled with geographic differences, make it unlikely that the parity in weapons, delivery forces, and inadequate defenses will occur at any given time and/or for any length of time as between two or more countries. This being true, it is dangerous for a nation to rely upon the existence of this condition in formulating its over-all force requirements and strategic concepts, or in evaluating power relationships.

Colonel Richardson, who this year was graduated from the National War College, will assume command of the 83d Day-Fighter Wing, TAC, at Seymour Johnson AFB, Goldsboro, N. C., later this year. In World War II he was assigned to the headquarters of the US Strategic and Tactical Air Force in Europe. He also commanded a fighter group during this period. Following the war he served on the Standing Board of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and was closely associated with its development. He has been concerned with planning activities in the War Plans Division, USAF, and spent two years with the Strategic Plans Group of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before moving to the Office of the Air Deputy, Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers in Europe.