As Sam Nunn Sees It

Aug. 1, 1985

In his nearly thirteen years as a US Senator from Georgia, conservative Democrat Sam Nunn has earned the respect of colleagues of all ideological persuasions on both sides of the aisle for his savvy on defense issues, his parliamentary skills in debating them, and his record of consistently supporting a strong national defense without becoming the Pentagon’s puppet.

Given such credentials, Senator Nunn, who will turn forty-seven on September 8, now commands the attention reserved for statesmen when he speaks out on defense. As the senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, he has a bully pulpit from which to speak out and is in position to become the committee’s chairman, should his party capture the Senate in next year’s elections.

Can Ill Afford to Ignore

Much of what Senator Nunn has to say the Pentagon may not want to hear, but can ill afford to ignore—witness the success of his performance in the Senate debate on the MX ICBM program earlier this year.

Senator Nunn is increasingly concerned about what he perceives as fuzzily defined US defense policies and strategies and about the ways in which the US military is organized, sets its priorities, and allocates its resources.

He has come to be convinced that sharp corrections are overdue in all such areas, especially in light of the political disfavor into which defense spending now seems to have fallen.

“We won’t have the resources to keep on going the way we are,” the Senator declares. “In the 1970s, it was clear that we did not have the resources to implement a realistic defense strategy. When we began getting the resources, we did not couple them with meaningful defense goals.

“We have not sorted out our defense priorities. Now that we are again facing resource constraints, we must have a strategy and goals that take them into account.”

Senator Nunn is for military reform but stops short of describing himself as a military reformer. What sets him apart from many who operate under that mantle is a style devoid of flamboyance and a preference for legislative persuasion over passionate rhetoric.

Early this year, he joined with Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in ordering a bipartisan committee staff study of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the armed services.

“We are serious,” Senator Nunn told Air Force Magazine, “about coming up—this year—with a plan for some restructuring of the military services, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Defense Department. We are taking a sound legislative approach to this.”

Force to Reckon With

Senator Nunn came into his own this year as a singular force to be reckoned with on national defense. His proposal to constrain the deployment of MX ICBMs in fixed silos attracted enough bipartisan support in the Senate to force the Reagan Administration to come to terms.

Senator Nunn’s growing clout had become obvious even before his victory in the Senate MX debate.

He succeeded the late Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), whom he describes as “my friend and my teacher from the day I arrived in Washington,” as the Armed Services Committee’s ranking Democrat in late 1983. The next year, his first full one in that advantageous post, he rattled Washington and Western European capitals with a move that seemed, at first, out of character for him as a longtime champion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Senator Nunn introduced an amendment to the Fiscal Year 1985 military authorization bill that would have frozen and then drastically cut the number of US troops in Europe unless the NATO allies did more to shoulder their monetary and military share of the burden of defending western Europe.

He lost—but the vote was a surprisingly close fifty-five to forty-one, even after President Reagan, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, and Secretary of State George P. Shultz lobbied hard in the Senate against his amendment.

Senator Nunn’s near-miss got NATO’s attention. It had the desired effect of influencing the European allies to concentrate harder on building up munitions stockpiles and on other means of sustaining a nonnuclear defense of their own territory.

The Nunn proposal was all the more effective because of its sponsor’s track record as a NATO stalwart.

Shortly after coming to the Senate, for example, Senator Nunn fought and voted against a proposal by Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), at the time the Senate Majority Leader and now US Ambassador to Japan. to phase out US forces from Europe.

Years later, Senator Nunn coauthored legislation aimed at making the Pentagon cooperate more earnestly with the NATO allies in bringing about greater standardization and interoperability of NATO weapon systems.

At the time of last year’s debate on the Nunn troop-withdrawal amendment, Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.), who later retired from the Senate and the chairmanship of its Armed Services Committee, put Senator Nunn’s powers of persuasion into plain-language perspective.

“He’s like a 500-pound gorilla. He can do anything he wants to,” Mr Tower said.

Citing DoD Statistics

In typical fashion, Senator Nunn used the Pentagon’s own data against it in making his case for his proposed NATO amendment. On the Senate floor, he cited DoD statistics that clearly showed the European allies falling far short of defense-spending promises they had made in 1978.

This year, with even more telling effect, Senator Nunn again knotted the Pentagon’s own past logic and conclusions around its neck during the Senate debate on the MX program.

Showing his lawyer’s sharp eye for supportive documentation and his penchant for doing his homework, the Senator resurrected a three-year-old Air Force report that had made the very same points he was trying to get across in arguing for deployment of only forty MX missiles in fixed silos—not the one hundred such missiles proposed by the Administration.

On the Senate floor, Senator Nunn recalled that the Administration’s original 1981 decision on MX basing was to deploy forty of the missiles in Minuteman silos “as an interim [basing] solution until a permanent solution could be found.” He then proceeded to quote a February 1982 report that the Air Force had sent the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in support of that Administration decision, as follows:

“The initial deployment of forty MX in existing silos will be sufficient to hold the most threatening Soviet silo sanctuaries at risk.

“However, it is not sufficient to pose a destabilizing threat of a disarming first strike.

“With ten highly accurate warheads each, the forty operational MX missiles will counterbalance 308 Soviet SS-18s and threaten a few superhard control centers.

“However, neither MX by itself—nor MX combined with 900 Minuteman III Mk 12A warheads—can deliver a crippling blow to the total of approximately 1,400 Soviet silos.

“This will provide sufficient firepower on line in a timely manner to allow the US to pursue further basing options without fear of Soviet coercion.”

That Air Force report unintentionally but neatly summed up Senator Nunn’s own main arguments—namely, that fixed-silo ICBMs have become too vulnerable to a first strike and that the formidable deployment of 100 MX missiles with 1,000 warheads in such silos could well lead to an extremely perilous launch-on-warning posture by both superpowers.

“Prompt Launch” Concerns

Senator Nunn’s concern about the US being forced into what he calls a “prompt launch” through overdependence on fixed-silo ICBMs is said to have been unwittingly heightened by the testimony of at least one US military witness during the Armed Services Committee’s MX hearings last spring.

He expressed his concern about the Soviets also taking a launch-on-warning stance:

“Someone once said that anyone who has ridden in an elevator in the Soviet Union has got to be a little bit uncomfortable about having the fate of our country rely entirely on whether Soviet sensors and radars could correctly inform them whether America is attacking or whether a flock of geese has reversed course over Siberia.

“That’s the way I feel. I feel that the world is moving inexorably toward a hair-trigger on both sides.”

Having quoted the 1982 Air Force letter during the Senate MX debate, Senator Nunn, resting his case, said:

“I must say that I continue to find this Air Force logic very compelling.

“As far as I am concerned, nothing has happened regarding the survivability of MX since the Air Force presented this report. A permanent basing mode has not been found, and I am persuaded that neither the Pentagon nor the White House is looking for such a [basing] solution.”

Senator Nunn acknowledged that the Air Force report had preceded the 1983 report of the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Strategic Forces (the Scowcroft Commission). Its recommendation to deploy 100 MX missiles in Minuteman silos—one of many recommendations for a cohesive strategic force of bombers, cruise missiles, and land-based and sea-based ICBMs—was adopted by the Administration and was instrumental in persuading Congress to approve the onset of MX production.

With 20/20 hindsight, it is now clear that Pentagon advocacy of the MX in the late 1970s and the early 1980s overemphasized the survivability aspect of the rationale for MX deployment and did not do justice to what the missile itself was all about. The need for MX as a hard-target ICBM to offset the Soviet deployment of a new generation of very powerful, very accurate ICBMs did not come through loud and clear.

The Scowcroft Commission put that need into proper perspective and addressed the vulnerability issue by urging the development of a small. single-warhead ICBM—now called SICBM, or Midgetman—to be deployed in a mobile mode, making it less vulnerable and thus less susceptible to launch on warning than MX.

The upshot of the Senate MX debate was that the Administration met Senator Nunn more than halfway, agreeing, for now, to deploy only fifty MX missiles.

“The Pentagon and the Air Force have been given a message that they needed to hear—that we expect them to move promptly down the road to the small ICBM and to take another look at survivable basing modes,” Senator Nunn declared.

Fifty Not Forever

He also emphasized that he may someday favor the deployment of more than fifty MX missiles if such survivable basing modes can be found and if he deems such deployment necessary at the time.

Some knowledgeable observers of the ups and downs of what Senator Nunn calls “this most controversial and wearying MX program” believe he may actually have saved MX from an even worse fate in Congress this year by heading off at the pass the adamantly anti-MX congressional forces that would have preferred to quash the program here and now.

The Senator himself voted early this year to release the funding that Congress had fenced off for MX in the current fiscal year.

He told the Senate at that time that “there is no ready alternative to MX since both the Trident D-5 (submarine-launched ballistic missile) and the Midgetman are a number of years behind it.” Killing MX “would leave no strategic land-based missile production line in place during the critical first few years of the Geneva talks” with the Soviets.

Senator Nunn Sees those talks as “terribly important.” If they break down, he says, the US will be forced into “enormous expenditures—possibly hundreds of billions of dollars” on strategic weapons and on the means of defending them.

In his opinion, “land-based missiles have the biggest stake in the success of arms control.” Without it, they will need to be based in mobile and defensible modes even more urgently than they need to be at the moment.

“I think we’re a long way from the end of the land-based ICBM,” Senator Nunn says, “but I also think we’re going to have to go more and more to sea [with the ballistic-missile force]. The time will come when not even mobility will be sufficient to keep our ICBMs safe, and we would need deceptive basing and perhaps some form of defense for them.”

Assumptions About D-5

In his considerations of the future makeup of US strategic forces, Senator Nunn takes for granted that the D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile scheduled for deployment later in this decade will be accurate enough to serve as a hard-target killer. This is the assessment of the Navy and of the Office of the Secretary of Defense as well, but there is lingering skepticism about it in some military circles.

Perhaps optimistically, Senator Nunn also assumes the invulnerability of the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines “a long way” into the future. He notes, however, that this applies only to those at sea. “A good number of them are in port all the time, maybe up to fifty percent of them” and they can be targeted there.

The key to keeping the Soviets at bay in the strategic arena, the Senator believes, is to make them spend so much money in developing and building defenses against US strategic weapons they presently could not counter that it hurts.

This is why, he says, “I’m high on the Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB) and the Advanced Cruise Missile (ACM),” both of which are being developed with so-called Stealth technologies to give them extremely small radar and infrared signatures and thus to make them very hard to detect.

“So I rate these two programs as much, much more important than the MX in vulnerable silos,” Senator Nunn declares. “Nothing will suit me better—if we don’t reach arms-control agreements—than the Soviet Union spending $500 billion to $1 trillion defending against the ATBs and the ACMs. Those [Soviet] resources would not then go into the kind of conventional armaments that put so much of the world in jeopardy from Soviet forces—including Europe, the Persian Gulf, and Southwest Asia.

“The ATB would give us tremendous economic leverage. It’s not that it can’t be defended against, it’s that the Soviets would have to spend huge money to do it—by substantially revamping their entire air defense system.”

On the other hand, Senator Nunn sees “very little economic leverage” in the B-1B bomber program because “the Soviets have already invested several hundred billion dollars in defenses against our present bomber force—probably anticipating, to a considerable degree, the B-1.

He adds: “My case against the B-1 is not based on the weapon but on the economics. I believe it will be particularly useful in a conventional role, such as against targets at sea.”

The Senator makes it clear, however, that he would fight hard against any Pentagon move to extend B-1B production beyond the presently planned 100 bombers if this would mean stretching or otherwise slighting the development of the ATB and the ACM.

Consistent with his practice of recent years, he recently joined with Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), the Senate Minority Leader, on a provision in the Senate Fiscal Year 1986 military authorization hill that forbids any shift of ATB or ACM development funding to the B-1B program. The Nunn-Byrd provision also specifies that the ATB and the ACM are “critical” and orders that their development proceed apace.

Senator Nunn was once suspicious that the Air Force would eventually try to get OSD and congressional approval for more than 100 B-IB bombers and for putting the ATB on the back burner in the bargain. He now tends to accept the Air Force’s protestations to the contrary.

Consequences of the Squeeze

He is concerned, however, that the new squeeze on defense spending, which he expects to become even tighter over the next few years, will work in favor of the B-1B and against the ATB.

The reason: It is always cheaper and safer to extend the production of workable weapon systems already being produced than it is to start up production lines for new and untried weapon systems.

“In a tight budget environment, a case may be made by others to keep the B-1B going,” the Senator says. It would be a “myopic” case, in his opinion, however, because it would miss what he believes is the salient point that US defense planners and budgeters should—but don’t—address.

As the Senator expresses it: “What matters is not the money going into the Pentagon, but the military capabilities coming out.”

He maintains that those capabilities at the moment are far from sufficient to enable US military forces to carry out the Administration’s “three-and-a-half-wars strategy,” as described by the Senator, even considering the $1 trillion that have been spent on defense over the past four years. Nor will they be sufficient in the future, he claims.

“We have a big strategy-capability gap,” he asserts.

Moreover, as he recently wrote: “Our own defense planning is out of sync with that of our allies. and our mobilization goals are out of sync with NATO capabilities and war plans.”

The latter point underlies Senator Nunn’s decision not to reintroduce his NATO troop-withdrawal amendment this year, but to press instead, through legislation, for an upsurge of transatlantic cooperation in the development, procurement, and deployment of nonnuclear weapons and munitions to be common to all NATO forces.

He says he is easing up his demand that the NATO allies live up to their pledges of solid annual defense-spending increases because “economics are working heavily against their defense budgets, too.”

He warns, however: “I will not continue to support the expenditure of some $180 billion each year from the US defense budget in order to carry out our part of a strategy that cannot work without the Europeans doing much more than they are.”

In this connection, he also declares: “Why on earth we would buy thousands of tactical aircraft five to ten years before the facilities and shelters needed to use them effectively are built in Europe is unexplainable.

“Why we would buy and ship to Europe enough munitions to allow our forces to fight three to four times longer than our allies is equally incredible. When their munitions run out, it’s all over.

“In a period of budget austerity, we in Congress will have to take a much harder look at our forces and our commitments.”

Nunn’s Key Questions

Such an examination, Senator Nunn told the Senate, should be based in pan on the following questions:

“Can we expand the number of Army divisions to seventeen, and can we afford to equip and train five different kinds of divisions

“Can we expand the tactical Air Force from thirty-six to forty wings, all the while developing new and improved capabilities, like the Advanced Tactical Fighter, that are likely to be even more expensive?

“Can we expand the Navy to 600 ships, buy enough attack submarines and enough Tridents, and still modernize naval aviation on a substantial scale, including the Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA)

“Can we afford the development of a new airlift transport, a new VTOL aircraft, a new series of utility helicopters, and other major new starts when the requirements for these are far from clear and our ability to fund them is dubious

Can we afford to fence off all of the President’s strategic modernization program, treating it as our highest-priority undertaking?”

His answer: No. Next year, he says, will be “the real year of reckoning, the year when there will simply not be enough money to sustain those DoD outyear plans.”

Thus it is “urgent,” Senator Nunn asserts, that the Administration and Congress cooperate in reshaping US force structures, weapon systems, and military commitments in accordance with what he calls “the real world.”

As it now stands, he claims, “Our current military strategy as set forth in [Secretary of Defense Caspar W.] Weinberger’s defense posture statements has little relationship to our present capability or to our foreseeable resources.”

Reshaping the Establishment

The first place to start in such reshaping, he claims, is the defense establishment itself—the services, the JCS, and the entire DoD.

“The JCS needs to be strengthened and the CINCs [Commanders in Chief] need to be strengthened,” Senator Nunn declares.

He says he prefers to wait for the results of the Goldwater-Nunn Senate Armed Services Committee staff study of the military establishment before going into detail on military reorganization.

It is obvious to him, however, that the JCS must be made into a vehicle for “giving better advice to the Secretary of Defense—he’s not getting good advice now from the services”—and for “saying no to the individual services across service lines. Somebody’s got to be able to do that.”

Senator Nunn says that the CINCs, whatever the color of their uniforms, complain in private that the Army, Navy, and Air Force components under their command are too often more responsive to the priorities of their respective service hierarchies than they are to the operational dictates of the CINCs themselves.

“Their lines of communication are back to the services, not to the CINCs, so what you have is that the CINCs are isolated from everybody, and yet they are the guys who would have to lead the fight,” Senator Nunn declares.

This shows up, for example, “when the CINCs want munitions but can’t get them because the services want platforms,” he adds.

His preliminary views on military reorganization do not imply any weakening of the Office of the Secretary of Defense or of civilian control of the military establishment, Senator Nunn maintains.

On the contrary, he insists, a stronger JCS and more powerful CINCs “would make it easier” for the Secretary to set and to oversee defense policy and strategy more in keeping with the wishes of a military that would be less caught up in interservice snarls—and thus would make for greater harmony all around.

In that same vein, “all mechanisms for joint programs and joint operations need to be strengthened,” Senator Nunn asserts.

One thing is already very clear: Any move that Senator Goldwater and Senator Nunn make toward military reorganization this year will include a proposal to cut personnel at the Pentagon, probably by a whole lot.

“There are far too many people in the Department of Defense,” Senator Nunn asserts.