Overseas Bases in Unlimited War

Dec. 1, 1959

This article was prepared by General Smith under the auspices of the Committee for National Security Policy Research of the Social Science Research Council.

A military concept being preached today alleges that, since overseas are particularly vulnerable to enemy missile attack, they are of less value than heretofore.

The first premise of this argument is a statement of fact. Overseas bases are becoming more and more vulnerable to missile attack. However, the conclusion is false.

Domestic bases are also more vulnerable to attack by missiles. Bases in Kansas expect four hours of warning time in the event of attack by manned aircraft. In the event of missile attack, their warning time would be diminished to minutes.

On the other hand, many bases overseas have long been geared to an assured warning of only minutes in the case of attack by either missile or airplanes. Advanced bases overseas have lost much.

Actually, therefore, overseas air bases have become of greater, not less, value to the free world. Relatively domestic bases.

There’s also another way of looking at it. Vulnerable as they may be, overseas bases can provide America with advance warning of an attack. Additionally, overseas bases would permit a quicker reaction to an enemy attack.

Overseas bases can provide more accurate electronic warning than Stateside bases simply because they are nearer to enemy launching sites. As long as electromagnetic power decreases with the square of the distance from its source — and this law of physics is not likely to be repealed — earlier and more detailed electronic warning can be expected from scopes located at advanced bases. By the same principle, the giant Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) being constructed in the far North to detect missile launchings will do a better job the nearer it is to the launching bases of our potential enemy.

And in the present state of missile technology, it would be foolhardy to focus all defenses against missiles expected to attack from over the Arctic. Missiles could come from any direction. Where should we locate our BMEWS to warn us against an east or west attack

Nor is electronic warning the most significant aspect in the value of overseas bases. Just as Communist missiles could quickly destroy these bases, our intermediate-range missiles on these bases could wreak havoc on targets in Communist bloc countries. Thus advanced bases are a true threat, which the enemy would have to destroy before launching an unlimited attack on the US.

RAND expert Albert J. Wohlstetter, in an article in Air Force Magazine (“The Delicate Balance of Terror,” February ’59), depreciates the value of overseas bases. He points out correctly that it would be no major problem for the Soviets to compute a TOT (time over target for simultaneous strikes at both continental and overseas bases.

Mr. Wohlstetter fails to mention, however, that time of flight would be considerably more, for example, from Vladivostok to San Francisco than from Vladivostok to Okinawa. Therefore, the missile dispatched to destroy San Francisco would have to depart some minutes earlier than the one destine to destroy Okinawa.

Now, assuming a warning station is at work on Okinawa or elsewhere in the general area, we would see the missile depart for San Francisco. And, assuming a technically feasible reaction time, we could launch an IRBM from Okinawa that could destroy Vladivostok before the Soviet missile reached San Francisco.

The destruction of Vladivostok would not save San Francisco. But it might save Okinawa provided Vladivostok also had the mission of destroying that island. And with Okinawa saved, many more IRBMs would be on their way to Communist targets.

Assume, now, that the Soviets decide to destroy Okinawa first in order to prevent the rapid retaliation we have hypothesized. The prior destruction of Okinawa then would presage an unlimited war. The United States could presumably, on the heels of the Okinawa aggression, launch its missiles ahead of the impending rain of Soviet missiles.

It might be reasoned that by varying the trajectory, enemy missiles could be launched simultaneously, and hit simultaneously, both on overseas and continental targets. This would mean that both San Francisco and Okinawa would most certainly be destroyed. But by varying the time of flight between Vladivostok and Okinawa to equal that between Vladivostok and San Francisco, the enemy has given the forces on Okinawa more time to react. Okinawa could conceivably dispatch missiles for Vladivostok before being destroyed, as could US-based forces, for that matter.

Since Okinawa is so much nearer to Vladivostok than is San Francisco, a missile from Okinawa directed at Vladivostok could, under these conditions, destroy Vladivostok before the Vladivostok missile had reached either San Francisco or Okinawa. So it would seem rather fruitless for Vladivostok missiles to be launched in the first place, because the only sensible purpose in initiating an all-out surprise attack would have been to destroy our ability to retaliate.

Neither the TOT strategy of simultaneous destruction, nor the sequential tactics of hitting overseas targets first, seems to present a picture of successful surprise attack. But remove the overseas bases and we lay ourselves open to less warning and a poorer chance for instantaneous reaction.

To give up our advanced bases would be to reduce our deterrent probability, degrade our warning if the deterrent failed, and destroy a good portion of our strike-back capabilities.

Some have reasoned that advanced bases would be of value only should we take the initiative to strike first, and that thus our advanced bases were provocative and might work against our deterrent policy. This argument overlooks overseas bases’ defensive value. It also posits that advanced bases could be destroyed before launching their weapons.

The implied conclusion is that we should pull back to hardened and dispersed continental bases. These would be more difficult to hit. Their dispersion would leave us with enough power after an aggressor’s attack to hit back hard against him.

This is the philosophy of “fortress America,” or military isolation in a new dress. But she’s the same old deceptive girl. The ultimate results could be fatal to the free world — politically as well as militarily.

Our allies would most certainly believe we had forsaken them and had thrown them to the Communist wolves. Communism could then march inexorably across one small nation after another, until the United States stood alone against the world. Our alliances would wither and die. The United Nations, in these circumstances, could well become an instrument of communism. Could we stay free very long under such circumstances

Let us examine the Far East situation as it might develop. How long could the Republic of China last without our direct military support? Or the Republic of Korea? Or other free Asian countries one could name? Could Japan hold out or would it be subverted by a combination of force and fear

No thinking statesman in free Asia wants us to strike our tents and go home. To do so would write the death sentence for many nations eager to remain free.

Okinawa is our military keystone in the Far East. On it are strong US bases equipped with modern aircraft ready to strike in any direction against aggression. Some day the Red Chinese may have nuclear missiles zeroed in on Okinawa. But if they should press the button to launch their missiles, time, as we have seen above, would be provided for US missiles to be launched in counter-attack.

The Far East supplies the most obvious examples of what might be expected if we pulled back our military strength. Results elsewhere, we may be sure, would be equally disadvantageous.

In essence, then:

• Overseas bases give us better electronic warning.

• To a would-be aggressor, our overseas bases present a threat that must be destroyed if an all-out war is launched against the free world.

If our overseas bases were destroyed first, our deep bases would be warned.

If overseas bases were attacked simultaneously with continental bases, launchings directed at overseas bases might follow launchings destined for the continent. In that case, the overseas bases would be warned and could destroy the enemy site before the short-range shot’s blastoff. Some overseas bases would thus be certain to survive and retaliate.

Should the enemy vary trajectories so that both blastoff and strike times for all missiles were simultaneous, the advanced base would have more time to retaliate and might well destroy the enemy launching area before enemy missiles hit either overseas or continental targets. This would present a distinctly discouraging prospect to an enemy hoping to win a one-mission war.

• From the standpoint of cold war tactics, withdrawal from overseas bases would be tantamount to surrender. Our allies, as well as neutrals, would be pushed in the direction of the Communist camp. Many might ultimately be forced to succumb to Communist expansion. Only the US is strong enough to provide the central force in a global free world coalition. Disappearance of such a coalition would greatly weaken both America and the rest of the free world.

A word now on the Navy’s submarine-launched Polaris missile and the Air Force’s air-launched ballistic missile as they apply to the question of overseas bases. Both, ready to go, would lessen the need for overseas bases. It to these bases, placing further weapons on the side of the free world.

But such weapons have their own peculiar vulnerabilities and limitations. They hardly affect the base situation.

Overseas bases are, in fact, a valuable and necessary as they provide us with distinct tactical, political, and psychological advantages, it would be folly to entertain thoughts of abandoning them.

The author, Maj. Gen. Dale Smith, is currently serving on Okinawa, an overseas base assigned a prominent role in his argument above. He is Commander of the 313th Air Division of the Pacific Air Forces on the strategic island. General Smith has previously been Chief, US Military Training Mission, Saudi Arabia, and Chief of the Policy Division, Directorate of Plans, under the Deputy Chief of Staff/Operations. A West Point graduate, General Smith flew thirty-one combat missions as a B-17 Group Commander in Europe during Word War II. He has been both student and staff member at the War College. Several of his strategy papers have been widely read throughout the armed forces. General Smith is a native of Reno, Nev.