Friday, July 8, 2016


By Ronald T. Fox

NOTE:  This is Part II of my three-part series on nuclear weapons and strategy.

Soviet Union First A-Bomb Test

" First Lightning," The First Successful Russian 
A-Bomb Test, August 29, 1945 

The U.S. emerged from World War II with a monopoly of nuclear weapons. Facing no credible security threats, there was little reason to think strategically about how best to provide for our national defense. Who would fool with the owner of the “winning weapon?” The situation changed in 1949 when the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic device. With Communist dominoes falling in Eastern Europe and the Russians building an atomic bomb delivery capability, the US now faced what was perceived as an existential threat. How would we respond? It would be up to the Dwight Eisenhower Administration to chart a course.

While Eisenhower was not a fan of atomic weapons, which he referred to as “those awful things,” he decided they afforded us our best option for confronting Russian provocations. He and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, opted for a strategy of deterrence that became known as the doctrine of “massive retaliation.” It posited that the US would respond massively with atomic weapons against Russian cities if provoked sufficiently by the USSR. The requisite provocation was not specified. Dulles considered massive retaliation an ideal doctrine to maintain the peace and protect our freedoms because he believed America’s atomic supremacy would deter Russian military attacks against America and its allies, and could also serve as leverage to stem communist aggression where it mattered. Key for Eisenhower, a reliance on a nuclear deterrent would negate the need for a costly buildup in troops and conventional weapons. It would give America “more bang for the buck.”

MISSILE GAPMany in the nuclear weapons establishment did not accept massive retaliation as a sound strategic guidance. The Strategic Air Command, aware that the U.S. possessed far more operational atomic weapons than the Russians, preferred its own war plan. They weren’t going to wait for the Russians to fire atomic weapons at the US. If, for example, the Soviets invaded West Germany, SAC was prepared to launch the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal.  By the later part of the 1950s this amounted to over 3,000 bombs and warheads, totaling nearly 8,000 megatons of explosive power, which it estimated would kill 285 million Russians and Chinese and millions more in Eastern Europe. The Air Force and navy were planning to build thousands more nuclear weapons over the next several years to keep up with projections of an arms race.
A number of scientists, academics and think-tank intellectuals, who had been thinking about a nuclear-armed world, also considered massive retaliation a poor idea because it left American cities vulnerable to attack and didn't include plans for what to do if deterrence failed.  They preferred a counterforce strategy that instead of targeting Soviet cities would target the Russian weapons that could inflict atomic destruction on the U.S.  To gain traction for their counterforce ideas, they published papers, circulated memoranda, and met with security officials in the government.  They fueled talk about a "bomber gap," and later a "missile gap," to underscore the need for a nuclear buildup as well as a change in nuclear strategy.

President Eisenhower, who knew the claimed gaps were false, wouldn’t budge from the mutual assured destruction posture. He despised atomic weapons and thought counterforce sounded too aggressive. Stonewalled, the counterforce advocates bid their time while Ike remained president. The seeds of the counterforce idea, however, had been planted.
Rand Headquarters
The defense intellectuals got their chance to shape policy when several were brought into the newly elected John Kennedy Administration. They included Paul Nitze and Henry Rowen, and from the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, William Kauffman, Alain Enthoven, Charles Hitch, and their highly regarded mentor, Albert Wohlstetter, who served as a consultant. Because of the brilliance these men displayed in their careers in academia and industry, they were referred to as Kennedy’s “Whiz Kids.” In his book, The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam criticized the Whiz Kids for arrogantly insisting on “brilliant policies that defied common sense” in Vietnam. Common sense wasn’t their thing.
Their immediate challenge was to convince Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara that the US needed more strategic options than our current deterrence posture of doing nothing or launching a massive nuclear retaliatory attack on Russian cities. Believing this promised response lacked credibility, they argued that we needed to tailor our response to the nature of the provocation; a conventional attack, for example, might be met with a conventional response, a limited battlefield nuclear attack with a response in kind, and so on. Counterforce targeting would allow the principles of limited war to be carried into the nuclear arena.  They reasoned that making our strategic nuclear weapons appear more “usable” would strengthen the credibility of threats to in fact use them. Also, in the event deterrence failed, counterforce weapons could be used to limit damage to the US.
It didn’t take long to convince the bright, but inexperienced, McNamara (he had been president of the Ford Motor Company at age thirty-three) of the logic of flexible strategic options. In a 1962 speech in Ann Arbor, Michigan, McNamara unveiled America’s new strategic posture. It would be labeled “flexible response.” (It was also sometimes referred to as the “no cities” doctrine.) Its principles were incorporated into the nation’s second Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP-63), which took effect on August 1, 1962.
Almost immediately after buying into the flexible options idea, McNamara began to have second thoughts. First, he discovered the U.S. was far ahead in the nuclear arms race. The more he learned about strategic realities, the more he doubted the wisdom of flexible response. He realized the doctrine placed no limits on arms requirements, which would place too heavy a burden on the American economy. The Cuban Missile Crisis experience opened the Defense Secretary’s eyes, driving home how easy it might be to slip into an all-out nuclear exchange.  In addition, he suspected what counterforce advocates really wanted was a first-strike capability, not limited nuclear strike options. He feared that if the Russians believed the U.S. was developing a first-strike capability, in a crisis they might be tempted to launch a preemptive strike, thus initiating nuclear war.

McNamara and Kennedy
Kennedy and McNamara
McNamara’s re-thinking led him to back away from the Ann Arbor flexible response/no cities statement and in 1964 declare that America’s deterrence doctrine would henceforth be based on the certitude that both the U.S. and Soviet Union would retain the capability to destroy the other’s major cities in the event one of them launched a first strike. It became known as the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, or MAD. Instead of preparing to fight a limited nuclear war, as the defense intellectuals were urging, the U.S. emphasis would be on maintaining a reliable retaliatory nuclear capability.  This would raise rather than lower the nuclear threshold. McNamara concluded that killing 30% of the Russian population and destroying one-third of its industrial capacity would be sufficient destruction for deterrence. He calculated this would require 400 equivalent megatons (EMTs). It constituted “minimal” deterrence.

The changes initiated in 1962 with flexible response, however, could not be undone. The shift to minimal deterrence didn’t become the guiding principle for the SIOP. Although MAD did restrict the scope of our nuclear weapons buildup for a few years, including stifling the development of a costly anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system, counterforce targeting remained an integral part of the US war plan.
MAD remained declaratory doctrine until the early 1970’s when a new group of counterforce enthusiasts, led by John Foster, Fred Ikle, James Schlesinger, and Henry Kissinger, re-introduced counterforce thinking into the Nixon and Ford Administrations. Like their Whiz Kid predecessors, these defense intellectuals advocated limited nuclear options tailored to the scale of a Soviet provocation.  (Kissinger previously germinated the idea of limited war in his 1957 book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy.) Driven by a strong belief in the value of strategic superiority, they urged an across-the-board weapons buildup. They argued that military superiority at every possible level of a ladder of engagement with the Soviet Union, from conventional to tactical nuclear, to short and intermediate range exchanges, to full war, would give the US escalation dominance. By assuring the Russians they could not win, no matter what military move they made, we would be able to terminate a war at the lowest possible level of conflict-- or so the theory went.
Counterforce, flexible options, limited war, and intrawar deterrence principles were spelled out in a 1974 national security decision memorandum (NSDM- 242), also known as the Schlesinger Doctrine. This security guidance went further than its war-fighting predecessors. It sought to extend deterrence beyond just nuclear attacks against the US to conventional attacks, nuclear or conventional attacks against our allies, and of coercion of the US by nuclear threats. In addition it called for the establishment of a “reserve force” that, if escalation could not be controlled, would be directed to destroy the political and economic and military resources critical to the Soviet Union’s ability to recover as a major power. The Schlesinger Doctrine’s main contribution to nuclear strategy was to request preparation of “limited” or “selected” nuclear options as a way to preserve the use of nuclear weapons to deter things other than an all-out attack. It was incorporated into the war plan as SIOP-5, taking effect in January 1, 1976.
Under the Nixon-Ford watch, the number of warheads in the US arsenal increased five-fold since McNamara’s time. This was largely a result of the administration’s decision to develop multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), which could be deployed on land and sea. With MIRVs we could put several warheads on one missile and send each warhead toward a different target.

With more warheads, we needed to add a whole new range of targets. By 1974 the number of targets had grown to 25,000. With only a couple hundred Russians cities having populations of over 200,000, the MIRV explosion had made a mockery of McNamara’s city-busting, minimal deterrence doctrine. MAD was history, though it continued—and continues-- to be used in public to describe our deterrence doctrine. The Nixon gang redefined assured destruction as having the forces necessary to ensure that the US would emerge from a nuclear war in discernibly better shape than the Soviet Union.

Kissinger, Ford, Schlesinger
The new warheads could also be delivered with greatly increased accuracy. This would, theoretically at least, enable U.S. to use its nuclear weapons more selectively. This option was vital to war-fighting thinking, for being able to go after a selected target, say a missile silo, might be a way of sending a message without triggering a massive nuclear response. The strategic thinkers behind NSDM-242 wanted to deliberately leave uncertain what the American response to a specific Soviet provocation might be. This stood in stark contrast to the logic of MAD, which was to assure the Russians that the US would use nuclear weapons only in retaliation.
Since the US had MIRVs and the Russians as yet didn’t, this would have been a great opportunity to negotiate a MIRV ban (Kissinger has admitted this was his greatest regret), but giving up a strategic advantage was not a realistic possibility. So the US pushed forward with its MIRV program as the Russians rushed to catch up. By the onset of the 1980’s, despite an earlier strategic arms limitation agreement (SALT I), both sides possessed large numbers of accurately deliverable warheads. This placed both sides’ strategic nuclear forces at increased risk.
The US response to increased missile vulnerability was to harden its land-based missile silos, place more of its nuclear weapons on less vulnerable submarines, build ABMs, and put our nuclear forces on high alert with “launch on warning” contingencies. These measures not only did little to close our “window of vulnerability, especially when Russian missile accuracy improved, they stoked Soviet fears that the U.S. might consider a first-strike.  Worse yet, placing our forces on a “hair-trigger” significantly increased the likelihood of accidental nuclear war.
Further improvements in US missile accuracy and maneuverability allowed nuclear strategists in the Ford, Carter, and Reagan Administrations to include more specificity in their war planning. President Carter released a 1980 presidential directive (PD-59) which embodied the idea of fighting a protracted nuclear war with the expressed goal of winning it. More than any previous strategic plan, PD-59 presented a theory of victory. Its targeting plan would distinguish Soviet political leadership (those who would surrender) from its military leadership (those who would conduct the war). PD-59’s main shift was from selectivity and signaling to that of victory. It was unique as a war-fighting plan in that it became declaratory policy. It was given effect in SIOP 5F (1981).
With strategic specialists Paul Nitze, Richard Perle, and Caspar Weinberger pointing the way, the Reagan Administration pushed further with plans for winning a nuclear war, which they believed would help produce not only victory but also help accomplish the aims of American foreign policy. This bold plan placed an emphasis on a first-strike, which in the Reagan team’s view necessitated further improvements in missile accuracy, new computer capabilities to permit rapid retargeting, and improvements in anti-submarine warfare, command, control, communication and intelligence gathering, and civil defense. Also on the board was Reagan’s dream of a space-based strategic anti-missile defense system the media called “Starwars.”
Initial guidance for the first-strike was provided in a national security decision directive (NSDD-13), which became SIOP-6. Its chief novelty from past war plans was its explicitness in detailing how a nuclear war could be decisively won. In contrast to past strategic formulations, the Reagan entourage appeared to actually believe what they were preaching: the United States had within its power the capacity to win a nuclear war.
The Reagan Administration took a further step down the war-winning path in 1987 with SIOP-6F, which placed emphasis on the destruction of Soviet leadership and prompt adaptive targeting of mobile systems. It is interesting to note that while his administration was upping the war-winning ante, the president was publicly rejecting the notion. At Reykjavik he even tried to negotiate the total elimination of all nuclear weapons. (See my response to a Phronesis reader about Reagan at Reykjavik.)
The Reagan Administration’s nuclear war-fighting strategizing represented the high-water mark for this reckless idea. The George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, blessed by the end of the Cold War, abandoned global war with Russia as the principle planning and programming paradigm for the US armed forces. Clinton ordered the Pentagon to focus less on planning a prolonged nuclear fight with a superpower and more on focused attacks to deter smaller powers from using chemical and biological weapons. Strategic arms reductions became a priority, as did concerns about the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the security of nuclear facilities.  
The possible use of nuclear weapons, however, was not ruled out. Clinton’s strategic guidance called for the use of nuclear weapons to respond swiftly and decisively to limited attacks. The constellation of strategic forces on land, in the air and on submarines remained pretty much the same, save some small reductions in missiles as a result of START talks. Improving the US ability to strike a wider variety of enemy targets became the guiding priority for US strategic employment policies and plans during the Bush, Sr., Clinton and Bush, Jr. Administrations. This meant new and improved weapons. The forward march of technology was not to be denied.

Once the counterforce idea had been planted in the minds of war planners, and incorporated into succeeding SIOPs, it drew a following of advocates from constituencies whose interests meshed well with counterforce prescriptions: large numbers of warheads that can be accurately delivered by land, sea and air; real time command, control and communication and early warning systems; and, missile defense. Advocates include the armed services, weapon designers and manufacturers, members of Congress anxious to bring weapons business back to their home states, and assorted military hawks who believe that America’s defense is best served by forceful actions, including preemptive strikes. This is a politically powerful coalition of advocates. They make nuclear disarmament, or even a return to a minimalist form of deterrence, politically impossible.  (More on this in Part III.)

The nuclear options strategy (I like to refer to it as our nuclear utilization targeting strategy, or NUTS) that came to dominate US atomic war plans is worlds apart from the minimal deterrence of McNamara’s MAD.  The transformation of MAD to NUTS has made America less secure.

Given that no one really knows what will happen after nuclear bombs start exploding (the simulation games played by strategic planners are mere guesses, and not very educated ones at that), a good case can be made that plans to fight nuclear war have been driven more by the need to justify more weapons and new technologies than lay out realistic scenarios.  This is a subject for a future post. 
I wish I could report that the end of the Cold War, and the 2008 election of a president who pledged to eliminate nuclear weapons, a semblance of sanity has returned to strategic nuclear policy making, but this hasn't been the case. The Obama Administration’s current nuclear modernization program includes plans to develop a new generation of miniaturized, variable yield nuclear weapons that can be easily hidden and delivered precisely to selected targets.  This delusional idea threatens to revive the Cold War and make nuclear war more likely.  I will turn to this subject in Part III.


1 comment:

  1. My familiarity with the subject dates to the 60s and JFK's "missile gap" claims, and books like Kahn's "Thinking About the Unthinkable" and Kissinger's "Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy" which, for better or for worse, were academic attempts to fathom the consequences of nuclear weapons and, more significantly, rapidly developing new delivery systems - all with the goal of assuring deterrence. I don't think, however, that the old literature provides much help in our post-bipolar world with at least, what?, 8 or 9 nuclear states that we know of. What remains true, however, is that the military loves new toys and the defense industry both depends on that and promotes it. E.g. despite the simplicity of MAD, which made some deterrent sense, McNamara was a rather strong Defense Sec'y vis-a-vis the Joint Chiefs for a simple reason: he increased Ike's defense budget at least fourfold. He never said no. I think that while we examine the issue of nuclear weapons, two concepts should not be part of the conversation -- victory and tactical nuclear weapons. In any tolerable sense the former is not possible and the use of the latter crosses the only clear and simple line in preventing nuclear holocaust. We crossed that line once to our lasting discredit. Besides, attempting to avert the dire consequence of a nuclear world is not a task for military strategists. The solution, if one still exists, will have to come from diplomatic, economic and political thinkers. We need to turn von Clausewitz's dictum on its head.


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