Ours or Theirs?

Dec. 1, 1983
As in Decembers past, this issue updates The Military Balance, compiled by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. It is a thought-provoking, quantitative assessment of world military power, and serves — in conjunction with such companion documents as the authoritative Soviet Military Power published by the Secretary of Defense last March — to reveal the awesome and growing dimensions of the Soviet military threat.

Some, however, will persist smugly in twisting those revelations into a gotcha question: “If the Soviet force is that good and that powerful, which force would you rather have — ours or theirs A response of “ours” will be taken to mean that efforts to upgrade and modernize US forces are wasteful. A response of “theirs” would instantly and dangerously undermine the credibility of US deterrent power.

The problem with the gotcha crowd is that their question is wrong. The relative value of military forces can be assessed only in the context of the strategic objectives those forces serve. Given the militant, offensive nature of Soviet doctrine and the facts of Soviet geography, then one would choose Soviet forces as preferable.

But US forces become referable — for our purposes — since US strategic doctrine is different from that of the Soviet Union. We have asserted that we will not start a war, and we have postured our forces accordingly. Our need is for a force that responds to aggression, not a force that initiates it. No serious planner on our side aspires to mirror-image Soviets forces. The geography of our situation and that of our allies — widely separated, lacking land lines of communication, without depth for maneuver, not self-sustainable, and having forsworn the initiative of firing the first shot — puts a premium on survivability, flexibility, and mobility. We must be ready to respond to Soviet adventurism or aggression in a broad range of circumstances.

The political limitations of sovereign, democratic governments dictate that, in peacetime, we forgo any attempt to achieve quantitative comparability with the soviets. Lacking quantitative balance, we must exploit fully the available technology in our weapon systems and optimize the training of those who operate support them. We can do these sorts of things very well, if we will. We need to use effectively the full range of our technology, our tactics, and our imagination.

The lack of a quantitative military balance, so evident in the statistics we present in this issue, demands that we busy ourselves with helping shape our strategies and design our forces to do the right things — not with asking cute, clever, and wrong questions. And, in the doing, we must not require our defense planners to cut it too close.

Defense planning is not a precise art. We would do a great disservice if we were to insist on a force posture to precisely developed and too finely drawn — and then have it turn out to be precisely second-best.