A Bankrupt Military Strategy

Our military assets can no longer cover our foreign-policy liabilities


TEN YEARS AGO, ON ASSIGNMENT TO THE ARMY General Staff’s War Plans Directorate, I sat in on a briefing by a navy planner on the strategic rationale for the U.S. Navy. Slide after slide portrayed the Soviet naval threat to U.S. interests around the world, and there followed slide after slide depicting how the U.S. Navy was countering the threat. When he finished, the planner, an admiral, asked my boss, an army major general, what he thought of the presentation.

“Very interesting,” the general said. “But what you’ve just said is that if the Soviet navy sank tomorrow, we could do away with the U.S. Navy.”

The admiral laughed. “You don’t understand,” he said. “If the Soviet navy sank tomorrow, I’d get me a new set of slides.”

The slide makers in the bowels of the Pentagon should be working overtime. Although the Soviet navy is still afloat, most of the other post-Second World War rationales upon which our military force structure was built either have sunk or are listing badly in the water, swamped by a sea change wrought not only by time and technology but also by a new dynamism in international politics. These erstwhile dreadnoughts include the pivotal role once played by nuclear weapons, the short-war scenarios derived from such nuclear dependence, and the strategies that call for the forward basing of troops which we have clung to since the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, forty years ago.

Strategic Forces

FOR MANY YEARS NUCLEAR WEAPONS WERE SUCH AN important part of our national military strategy that they virtually defined the word strategic, which classically had meant the use or threatened use of military means to achieve the political ends of the state. At the beginning of the nuclear age, in a brilliant semantic maneuver, the nuclear theorists hijacked the word and misappropriated it to advance their conviction that nuclear bombs were “strategic” weapons capable by themselves of achieving the political goals and objectives of the United States. As a result, for many years strategic almost automatically meant the use of nuclear means, as in the phrases strategic forces, strategic weapons, and Strategic Air Command.

Indeed, at one time nuclear weapons were synonymous with strategy itself. In 1953, for budgetary more than for military reasons, the Eisenhower Administration adopted the strategy of “massive retaliation,” whereby our national defenses relied almost entirely on nuclear forces. This “maximum deterrent at a bearable cost,” as John Foster Dulles called it, had enormous, long-lasting consequences.

For one thing, the conventional (that is, non-nuclear) forces of the navy, air force, and especially the army and Marines were all but deprived of their raison d’être. As the historian Russell Weigley has noted, “A national military policy and strategy relying upon massive nuclear retaliation for nearly all the uses of force left the Army uncertain of its place in the policy and strategy, uncertain that civilians recognized a need even for the Army’s existence and uncertain therefore of the service’s whole future.”

The reaction was twofold. First, all the services tried to break the Strategic Air Command’s monopoly by acquiring nuclear weaponry of their own. “Tactical” nuclear weapons (artillery shells, small bombs, rockets, and missiles intended for short-range battlefield use) proliferated, as the army, the navy, and the air force’s Tactical Air Command scrambled to get a piece of the nuclear, and budgetary, action.

This nuclear armament forced the second reaction. Instead of allowing strategy to define the armament necessary to carry it out successfully, the process was turned on its head to the point that the nuclear armament now defined the strategy. The result, under the Kennedy Administration, was the doctrine of “flexible response,” ostensibly the strategy under which we are operating today. While moving away from the almost total reliance on nuclear weaponry called for by massive retaliation, flexible response still rested on a foundation of nuclear weapons.

But though a nuclear-based strategy like flexible response may have made at least some sense while the United States enjoyed an enormous nuclear advantage and could credibly threaten “escalation dominance”—that is, raising a crisis to a level at which the adversary could not respond—it made little sense once the Soviet Union achieved nuclear parity.

A decade ago the army staff was presented with a conundrum that came to be known as Darling’s dilemma. The War Plans Directorate had a policy of allowing select staff officers to present controversial issues to the most senior planners. A Lieutenant Colonel Dean Darling challenged them to imagine that they were the Joint Chiefs of Staff and that he was the President of the United States.

“The Soviets have just launched a major cross-border attack on Western Europe,”he said. “CINCEUR [the commander in chief, European Command] has just asked me for the authority to use tactical nuclear weapons to slow their advance. I’m quite prepared to approve his request, and the only thing I need from you is an assurance that the Soviets will not respond with a strategic nuclear attack on the American homeland. Now, I know from our Second World War experience that we can lose the whole continent of Europe and survive as a nation. But you’ve told me that a strategic nuclear exchange would kill as much as three quarters of the American people. I know that you can’t give me a one-hundred-percent assurance. So I’ll go with fifty percent or better.”

There was a deafening silence in the room. None of the planners was willing to give the assurance that Darling sought. The dilemma upon which the army was impaled was clear.

“We have built our strategy in Europe,” Colonel Darling concluded, “on nuclear weapons systems that we will refuse to use when the time comes to use them. Not only that—by relying on this nuclear facade, we have undermined the war-fighting abilities of our conventional forces as well.”

While admitting the validity of Darling’s remarks, the army planners did not want to acknowledge what they portended. Neither did anyone else—particularly our NATO allies, who were not prepared to pay the cost in conventional forces that acknowledging the bankruptcy of flexible response would entail.

But not only are the war-fighting aspects of nuclear weaponry bankrupt; so is their deterrent value. In April of 1975, a week before the fall of Saigon, I was in Hanoi negotiating the terms of the withdrawal of the U.S. embassy personnel. Crowing about the impending North Vietnamese victory, my NVA counterpart said, “This just goes to show you can’t stamp out a revolutionary idea with force.”

“That’s nonsense and you know it,” I replied. “Almost eight hundred years ago Genghis Khan stamped out the jihad declared against him in Central Asia by killing ten million or so Muslims, and you know full well that with our nuclear arsenal we always had the means to destroy you totally.”

“We knew that,” he replied. “We also knew you’d never do it.”

If strategic nuclear weapons could not deter a small nonnuclear nation like North Vietnam (or North Korea twenty-five years earlier, for that matter), it should be obvious that their ability to deter the adventurism of a major nuclear-armed opponent is questionable indeed. Yet that point has evidently not sunk in.

Shortly after President Carter announced his Carter Doctrine to protect the Middle East from Soviet aggression, the scenario was seriously advanced that if the Soviets invaded Iran, we’d send in the 82d Airborne Division as a show of force, and if they didn’t back off then, we’d be forced to use tactical nuclear weapons.

What was missing from that scenario was the dispiriting recognition that the Soviets have as many tactical nuclear weapons as we do, if not more; if we breached the nuclear threshold, they’d surely respond in kind. Who then would be more vulnerable to nuclear fire—Soviet units advancing through mountain passes, or U.S. lodgments on the coast? You don’t have to be a nuclear-weapons expert to figure that out. And you don’t have to be a strategic expert to see the fallacy in such nuclear-based strategies.

The Short-War Theory

THE RELIANCE ON NUCLEAR WEAPONS FOR OUR WARfighting strategies was bad enough, but even worse were the false assumptions that these weapons spawned. Most pernicious was the so-called short-war theory—the assumption that any major future war would inevitably go nuclear and would therefore be concluded in a matter of hours or at most days. Until the past few years most global war-fighting scenarios were played out within a ninety-day period; those units that could not reach the battlefield within that time were, for all practical purposes, considered useless.

The short-war theory helped to reinforce several trends in military planning. Particularly hard hit were America’s reserve forces, which supposedly no longer had a role to play on the battlefield. The draft, which was abolished because of domestic and fiscal pressures, received an additional blow, because according to the short-war scenario, the shooting would be over before draftees could be conscripted, trained, and deployed. Dismissed as well were our manpower and industrial mobilization capabilities, which had proved to be decisive in two world wars. No need for them in a short war.

The navy and the air force did not have major objections to this theory. It enhanced the role of the navy’s submarine-launched ballistic-missile force and the air force’s Strategic Air Command, with its nuclear bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles. And since the conventional navy and air force consisted primarily of active-duty units and ready-reserve forces that could meet the ninety - day test, their manpower was not threatened either.

It was left to the army to lead the fight against the shortwar theory, not so much out of self-interest (although that was certainly involved) as because the army was convinced that the theory would lead to disaster on the battlefield. In the mid-1970s the perception among officers on his staff was that John Vessey, then a brigadier general (later the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), was passed over for promotion for continuing to ask. What happens on the ninety-first day? But the lack of promotion did not stop him. He persisted until a full-scale examination of America’s mobilization capability was ordered. The results were shocking. As it then stood, on the ninety-first day we’d either lose the war or be forced to resort to nuclear weapons, for our mobilization procedures were virtually nonexistent. A reconsideration of the short-war theory was clearly needed.

Another aspect of the theory which particularly bothered the army was that it cut the military off from the American people. This was deliberate. Short-war theorists argued that in modern war there would be no time to follow constitutional procedures and involve Congress (and thereby the people) in the decision-making process.

The Vietnam War was a case in point. Instead of calling for a constitutionally mandated declaration of war by Congress (in Alexander Hamilton’s felicitous words, “the representatives of the people, periodically elected”), President Johnson used his authority as Commander in Chief to order the military into action. Not wishing to pay the political price involved, he deliberately refused to mobilize the reserve forces or to take his case to the American people. The American people soon made it known that they had some say in the matter. As General Fred C. Weyand, America’s last commander in Vietnam, observed, “The American army really is a people’s army in the sense that it belongs to the American people, who take a jealous and proprietary interest in its involvement. . . . The army, therefore, cannot be committed lightly.”

Partly with that thought in mind, and seeking to avoid a repetition of the Vietnam fiasco. General Creighton Abrams, then the army chief of staff, set out in 1973 to debunk the short-war theory and to create an army that could not be committed to sustained combat without the approval of the American people. The resulting “total army" concept created an army whose activeduty divisions were “rounded out" with brigades from the National Guard. It would take specific congressional approval to commit such forces to sustained combat—approval that, as experience has shown, would not be forthcoming unless members of Congress were assured of the support of their constituents. For obvious reasons, Abrams did not trumpet the rationale behind the total army; instead, he allowed the belief to spread that manpower and budgetary considerations impelled the change, although these were in fact secondary.

In the 1980s the army found a most unexpected ally in its battle against the short-war theory: Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman, Jr. The fundamental purpose of his maritime strategy and 600-ship navy was to gain control of the seas and allow the construction of a “sea bridge" to Europe which would enable the mobilization capability of the United States to be brought to bear. His strategy was based on two assumptions: any future conflict would be prolonged, and any future conflict would be fought, as far as possible, by conventional—non-nuclear—means.

Forward Basing

AMONG THE SEVERAL REASONS THE MARITIME STRATegy was controversial was that its non-nuclear provisions challenged the assumptions undergirding America’s forward-basing strategy. Originally, U.S. forces were maintained in Europe to validate guarantees by the United States that it would use nuclear weapons to turn back Soviet aggression. The scenario called for a “come as you are" war that would be concluded within ninety days by the use, if need be, of nuclear weapons. Although the time limit has been extended, the threatened first use of nuclear weapons to stop a Warsaw Pact attack is still the crux of NATO strategy.

But for a long time this scenario has made no military sense. Over the past decade the horns of Darling’s dilemma have continued to grow as Soviet nuclear parity, and in some cases outright nuclear superiority, have spread inexorably from the strategic to the operational to the tactical level. Because of a refusal, primarily for budgetary reasons, to face this change in the correlation of forces, NATO strategy has degenerated to the point where the message it is sending is not “You attack me and I’ll destroy you” but instead the pathetic “You attack me and I’ll commit nuclear suicide!”

U.S. forward-based forces now find themselves in the worst of all worlds. They lack sufficient conventional combat power to stand alone; the NATO allies, still officially relying on U.S. nuclear guarantees that have long since lost their validity, also lack sufficient conventional combat power; and the nuclear forces upon which both once depended have become paper tigers. The nuclear foundation upon which our post—Second World War strategy was erected is fast crumbling away. It is only a matter of time before tactical nuclear weapons are withdrawn from Europe. Like intermediate nuclear weapons, they have long since lost their battlefield utility.

This strips the underpinnings from the nuclear-based short-war scenarios and the whole U.S. forward-basing strategy. The reason the United States built its strategy on nuclear forces to begin with, as John Foster Dulles made clear, was that they were much cheaper than conventional forces. And the reason NATO welcomed U.S. forward-deployed forces in Europe was that they served as a trip wire to those U.S. nuclear forces.

As long as the nuclear-based strategy was credible, both the United States and its NATO allies could avoid spending the huge sums that a conventional-based strategy would have entailed. But as the perceived value of the nuclear deterrent declines in the face of the intermediate-nuclearforces agreement and Soviet glasnost and perestroika, so does tolerance for the forward basing of American troops, which are increasingly seen as an irritant, even by our staunchest allies. Other allies, like Greece, have turned into parasites. What began as an exercise in collective security and coalition defense has degenerated to the point where we are paying ransom for the “privilege” of protecting our “friends” from external aggression. Common sense tells us that it may be time to come home.

The most obvious step would be to scrap our nuclearbased short-war scenarios and our forward basing in favor of long-war scenarios that rely on conventional arms. But that would be a major undertaking. To meet our present worldwide commitments with conventional forces alone might take something in the vicinity of a sixfold increase in ground-force divisions and a corresponding increase in defense spending.

The projections vary widely, because they depend on different scenarios, but according to some of them, it would take up to 200 divisions to meet all of America’s worldwide military commitments simultaneously. The gap between those commitments and the army and Marine Corps’s present thirty-two active and reserve divisions is evidence that as it now stands our conventional-force military strategy is almost literally bankrupt, for our foreignpolicy liabilities far exceed our operational military assets.

It is not that we have too few military forces; it is that we have too many jobs for them to do. Through a multiplicity of mutual-defense treaties and agreements, the United States has given solemn pledges to nations around the world that we will protect them from external aggression. But these pledges can no longer be credibly covered by nuclear means, and the U.S. defense budget, already seen as excessive, is not about to be expanded to close the present conventional-force gap.

What is to be done? Like any bankrupt, we need to re-examine both our assets and our liabilities. Our foreignpolicy goals and objectives must be brought back into balance with the military means available for their attainment, enhancement, and protection.

It’s not only time the Pentagon got a new set of slides. It’s time the State Department got a new set as well.