December 2, 1987

December 2, 1987 | Backgrounder on National Security and Defense

Basing Deterrence on Strategic Defense


(Archived document, may contain errors)

621 Dec ember 2, 1987 BASING DETERRENCE ON STRATEGIC DEFENSE 0 W~RODUCIION United States nuclear strategy rests on what popularly is called the "balance of terror"--the threat of using massive nuclear forces to retaliate against an enemy nuclear attack. This has b een U.S. strategy since just about the first Soviet nuclear test The strategy was refined in the 1960s with the adoption of the. doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, in which the U.S. states that threatening mutual nuclear suicide is the best w ay to deter war. Even though U.S. nuclear doctrine has evolved somewhat over the years, concentrating more on destroying military forces than populations, its basic offensive nature has not changed.

It is time that it did. The deployment of the defensive w eapons developed by the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, will require that U.S. military planners think about how offense and defense can work together to make deterrence more effective To be ready for this, the U.S. now should be thinking seriously a bout developing a coherent and comprehensive strategic ,doctrine of deterrence for both offensive and defensive strategic forces outdated. Offensive deterrence no matter how equal the U.S.-Soviet strategic balance may be, could be unstable in time of seve r e crisis. And with no defenses there is no protection if offensive deterrence should fail. Deterrence based on the threat of nuclear retaliation must be maintained, of course, until strategic defenses are deployed. Yet basing deterrence on offensive nucle a r forces alone presents many problems. For one thing, reliance on the threat of nuclear terror demoralizes the West while emboldening the East. For another, the implicit threat of suicide as a deterrent can lack credibility, not only with U.S. allies, but with the Soviet Union as well. Just as serious, competing on the basis of offensive forces plays to the Soviet strength in large multiwarhead missiles and is grounded on the erroneous assumption that all Moscow wants is Western-style strategic stability T h reatening Suicide. A new strategic doctrine is needed because MAD is -2 In place of MAD, the U.S. needs a new strategic doctrine of deterrence which accepts the role of defense It should establish the fundamental principle that offensive and defensive str a tegic forces are mutually reinforcing in enhancing the credibility of deterrence. Once developed, this new strategy should be used as a guideline for force planning and wartime operations. Such a new strategy could against U.S. land-based missiles, bomber s , command, control and communication sites, and ballistic missile sub,marine bases. A credible denial of Soviet first-strike capability strengthens deterrence e Frustrate Soviet offensive targeting objectives in a protracted U.S.-Soviet conflict, making a coordinated Soviet attack on U.S. nuclear forces and command centers ineffective, risky, and therefore unlikely. A denial of Soviet nuclear warfighting options strengthens deterrence Deny the Soviet Union the capability of launching a disarming first stri k e Force the Soviets to be cautious in time of crisis by playing on the classic military prudence, arising from the imperatives of the worst-case scenario, of overestimating the effectiveness of an opponent's forces. Caution contributes to crisis stability Provide arms control stability by offering Moscow a serious incentive to negotiate to reduce offensive1 nuclear arms. Real arms reductions can contribute to defense-based deterrence by making strategic defenses more .effective THE CURRENT STRA'IEGY OF OFF E NSIVE DmRRENCE There are two basic types of deterrent strategy. The first is an offense oriented deterrence which threatens punishment for an act of aggression; this sometimes is called "deterrence by punishment or sanction The second is a defense-oriente d deterrence which deters aggression by preventing an opponent from achieving his military objectives; this is sometimes called "deterrence by denial In conventional forces, both types of deterrence exist because a mixture of offensive and defensive forces are deployed. In strategic forces, only the first type exists because only offensive forces are deployed--at least by the U.S Gas Warfare. The strategy of exclusively offensive deterrence is used when nations possess a super weapon against which an active defense cannot be effectively mounted. The quintessential exclusive offensive deterrence is chemical weaponry.

Chemical weapons were not used in World War I1 even though both sides possessed them. Remembering the horror of World War I gas warfare, nations hesitated using chemical weapons for fear of retaliation in kind. This principle has been carried over to nucl e ar deterrence, though the idea was e anded in the 1950s to thought that since no adequate defense existed against nuclear missiles, the best way to deter a general war was to threaten the use of massive nuclear missiles deter not only the use of nuclear w e apons but all types o aggression. It was In the nuclear age two basic types of nuclear, offense-oriented deterrent theories evolved: -4 that some of its retaliatory forces would survive after a first strike, there always will be an incentive to destroy an opponents missiles in their silos before they can be launched. Although the rhetoric of assured destruction theory calls for absorbing a first strike before retaliating, ,the reality of offensive force targeting compels each side to consider launching as q uickly as possible to reduce damage to its own nuclear forces. It is this, after all, which compels the U.S. and USSR to improve the accuracy and the capability to launch missile forces as quickly as po~sible Nuclear Panic. Strategic relationships stable i n peacetime may be unstable in an extreme crisis. The reason: with offensive nuclear forces alone, the guiding light for action is no longer rational calculation or a weighing of options to achieve military objectives, but fear and profound uncertainty. I n a crisis, the peacetime stable complacency of deterrence resting on doubt and confusion could quickly turn into the unstable panic of launching a first strike?

The root of crisis instability is the absence of strategic defenses. Theorists who helped craf t the rationale of Assured Destruction, such as strategist Bernard Brodie, have acknowledged that vulnerable nuclear forces are destabilizing because they invite aggression.6 The trouble is that all unprotected land-based rmssiles are vulnerable no matter how credible a nations offensive deterrent posture is.

Vulnerability can be reduced, to be sure, by placing intercontinental ballistic missiles in concrete-hardened silos or by moving them. But these measures are expensive present political problems, and are far from as effective as layered strategic defenses. Only defense against the offensive missile would give the U.S. more realistic options in crisis and war doctrine is faced with a fundamental contradiction: threatening an act which promises certain s elf-destruction So long as offensive nuclear forces alone are used to deter nuclear war, there will be a need to maintain and modernize U.S. strategic forces. But it must be admitted that there always will be a contradiction between making the deterrent c r edible, which requires planning for their actual use, and the stated aim of deterrence, which is not to use them at all. Without strategic defenses, the wartime choices could be, in the extreme, either surrender or suicide Surrender or Worse. Offensive de t errence as it is now constituted in U.S 4. Althoue the tendency exists both in the U.S. and the USSR toward more prompt hard-target-kill capable missiles, it is much more revalent in the Soviet Union than in the U.S. In 1986 Moscow had strategx targets, t h e Soviets would have many land- and sea-based warheads left over after a first strike to deter U.S. retaliation. See W. Bruce Wemod, ed., Arms Control Handbook, (Washington, D.C The Heritage Foundation, 1987), p. 135 5,240 prompt hard-target-kill-capab,e P warheads compared to 970 for the U.S. Against 1,500 U.S 5. Another problem with offensive, assured destruction strategies is that their strategic objectives and operational tactics often work at cross purposes. For example, some advocates of assured dest r uction believe that the best way to deter ,nuclear war is to reduce the o erational effectiveness of nuclear the use of nuclear weapons out of anic once a conventional war started. Moreover, a nuclear arsenal and bombs of the 1950s and early 1960s 6. See M ajor Owen E. Jensen, Classical Military Strategy and Ballistic Missile Defense, Air Universily Review, May/June 1984, pp. 60-61 weapons by banning tests of nuclear explosions and ballistic miss lf es. This would do little to preclude of unreliable, inaccu r ate weapons lj R ely would lead both sides back to the super-destructive warheads Flaw #2 It Demoralizes the West In the early 1980s, huge mobs of anti-nuclear demonstrators poured into the streets of Western Europe and America protesting U.S. and NATO nu clear policies.

The political pressure generated by these demonstrations was partly responsible for Ronald Reagan's now famous "zero option" proposing the complete elimination of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe.

Because Western publics are t old so often that war between the U.S. and the USSR will lead to global nuclear annihilation, they often become vulnerable to defeatist arguments for unilateral disarmament. Left without any defensive options against nuclear weapons, Western populations b ecome confused by MAD proponents who say that nuclear offense is the best defense Elusive Public Consenys. Policymakers responsible for maintaining the West's nuclear deterrent are tossed about by changing public moods on nuclear weapons.

These officials d iscover that the purely offensive character of nuclear strategy puts the U.S. and its allies on the defensive against the Warsaw Pact. Whereas the Kremlin makes nuclear policy without any interference from Soviet citizens, Western democratic governments m ust build a public consensus behind their nuclear policies.

The Western fear of nuclear war is partly responsible for West European insistence on purely defensive conventional tactics in the European theater. NATO thus embraces the doctrine of "forward def ense which envisages defense as far forward as possible to the East German border but which contemplates no ground counteroffensive operations deep into Eastern Europe. Knowing that NATO is on the defensive, the Warsaw Pact is free to plan for purely offe n sive military operations against NATO The demoralization that accompanies a no-win, offensive nuclear strategy is also behind the arms-control-at-any-price philosophy. Strong arms control advocates are deep pessimists. Wrapped up as they are in the ideolo g y of a spiraling arms race, they suffer the moral and psychological demoralization of seeing no rational alternative to a doctrine of mutual suicide. As a result, they mistakenly try to use arms control to achieve what defensive forces normally would acco mplish: minimize the risk of war and reduce damage if deterrence fails. Convinced that the "arms race" and not the Soviet arsenal is the problem, arms controllers find themselves more interested in reaching arms agreements than in maintaining deterrence.

M any staunch arms controllers are also proponents of MAD theory. But they seem to have little confidence that MAD will work. If they had, it would make sense for them to raise the risk of nuclear destruction as high as possible. After all, this would make n uclear war even more "unthinkable But MAD proponents do not advocate this because they really do not believe their own rhetoric about high levels of destructiveness making nuclear war unthinkable. Their one-sided embrace of arms control is an admission th a t a purely offensive nuclear strategy in general, and MAD in particular, are inherently unstable Flaw #3 It Lacks credibility Current U.S. strategy envisages an American President unleashing a nuclear attack in response to a Soviet conventional invasion o f Europe or a limited nuclear -6 attack on the U.S. itseK7 Is such a strategy credibile? Is it'believable that a President would launch a nuclear retaliatory attack on the Soviet Union knowing that the Soviet response would kill millions of Americans?

Whil e the Pentagon may have any number of retaliatory options ready for the President, including fairly limited ones, even limited strikes can bring the full weight of the Soviet arsenal down on the heads of American citizens. In such a situation threats of r e taliation risk lacking credibility. Under the conditions of the current strategic balance, it will be difficult for the Soviets to believe that the U.S. would take the offensive action of full-scale nuclear retaliation, which in the end would make matters worse for the U.S. than had it done nothing at all Flaw It Undermines NA'IWs conhdence in the U.S Fred S. Hoffman, the chairman of the 1983 presidential panel that studied the strategic impact of the Strategic Defense Initiative, draws a startling conclus i on about impact of MAD on NATO. He states Nothing could decouple the United States from its allies more completely than the belief that the United States would use nuclear weapons against the Sovlet Union only in response to an attack on U.S territory. Bu t if mutual deterrence based on MAD means anything, it means this."8 The strategic coupling of the U.S. to its European allies has become questionable because the vulnerability of 'the U.S. to Soviet nuclear attacks has weakened the U.S. nuclear guarantee to Western Europe.

NATO has tried very hard to overcome the problem of decoupling by adopting flexible response" as a military doctrine. This calls for credible military action, such as effective conventional defense and the use of tactical nuclear weapons , which does not require a retaliation from U.S.-based strategic forces. But the problem of U.S. vulnerability still remains. It makes little sense for the U.S. to promise that it will come to the aid of its allies with -its ultimate deterrent-strategic n u clear forces if the price is self-annihilation. It is little wonder that West Europeans doubt the credibility of this promise Flaw #S It Provides No Fallback If Deterrence Fails A major nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union would kill at least 140 millio n Americans? Thus if offensive deterrence fails, the consequences would be catastrophic. In assured destruction theory, or in any other offensive deterrence 7. For a good discussion of the credibility problems associated with an offensive-oriented nuclear s trategy, see Keith B. Payne and Colin S. Gray, "Nuclear Policy and the Defensive Transition Foreign Affairs, Spring 1984, p. 828 8. Fred S. Hoffman, "Imperfect Strategies, Near-Perfect Defenses, and the SDI," in Hoffman, et al., op cit., pp. 200-1; also s e e Wohlstetter, op. cit., pp. 29-33 9. Warner R. Schillin U.S. Strategic Concepts in the 1970s: The .Search for Sufficiently Equivalent Countervailing Parity rn Steven E. Miller, ed., Strategv and Nuclear Deterrence: An International Security Reader (Princ e ton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 199 -7 theory, no provision is made for the failure of deterrence because it has been argued that greater mutual vulnerability produces strategic stability.lo Flaw f6 It Misunderstands *et, Strategy S t anley Kober, a defense analyst at the Hudson Instituje, observes: "Unlike the United States, the USSR has never separated deterrence from defense: while recognizing that, given the present dominance of nuclear offensive technology deterrence at this time m ust be based on the ability to retaliate for an attack, the Soviet Union has always held that the ability to defend as well as to retaliate provides superior deterrence.''ll It is for this reason that the Soviets maintain the world's only operational anti -ballistic missile system, which is currently deployed around Moscow, and why they place so many of their warheads on large land-based ICBMs capable of destroying U.S.missiles in their silos.

Since they fear no U.S. first strike, the Soviets do not, as th e U.S. must diversify their nuclear forces into a survivable "Triad" of land-based missiles submarine-based missiles, and long-range bombers. Rather, the Soviets concentrate on heavy ICBMs which threaten U.S. nuclear forces with a first strike.

While the Soviet Union builds a large land-based ICBM force possibly capable of launching a first strike against U.S. nuclear forces, the U.S. debates about which missile, the MX or the Midgetman, is best suited for absorbing these first strikes.

The U.S. obsession about' the survivability of its land-based missile force is a tacit admission that for political reasons the U.S. cannot compete effectively with the Soviet Union in an offense-dominant strategic environment BASING STRATEGIC DEXEXRENa ON DEFENSE permitti n g a massive first strike against Soviet military targets. As such, the U.S needs a more credible strategy and force posture based on a mixture of offensive and defensive forces. Basin deterrence on defense will reduce the risk of war. It escalate into nuc lear conflict mathematical certainty the damage its nuclear strike could cause to the U.S.

Moscow can calculate how many warheads are needed to destroy every ICBM and strategic commmand and control site in the U.S The U.S. has no intention of adopting a Soviet-style doctrine and force posture will reduce the likelihood 0, B a Soviet first strik e and help stabilize crises that could Under current strategic conditions the Soviet Union can calculate with near 10. It is a strategic axiom that sea-based nuclear forces are stabilizing precisely because they are less vulnerable than land-based missiles . Furthermore, the entire debate in recent years, over the basing modes of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles has focused on which new missile, the MX or the Midgetman, would be most surviyable. It has long been understood that in practice surv i vable nuclear forces, whether protected by strategic defenses, mobile basing modes, or the cover of sea (when deployed in submarines have faf greater deterrent value than missiles which are not survivable 11. Stanley Kober Strategic Defense, Deterrence, a n d Arms Control Washington Quarterly, Winter 1987, p. 125. -8 Factor of Uncertainty Such certain Soviet calculations would be impossible if the U.S. had effective, survivable strategic defenses.12 Military commanders can never be absolutely certain of calc u lations measuring fire exchange ratios for conventional forces because an active and unpredictable enemy capable of defending itself creates a factor of uncertainty which cannot be perfectly quantified. Strategic defenses would introduce this uncertainty f actor into the Soviet decision-making process. Facing defenses that would stop a significant portion of their ballistic missiles, the Soviets no longer could treat a first strike on the U.S. as if it were a turkey shoot.l3 But could not Moscow simply incr e ase the number of warheads to overwhelm the U.S. defenses? It would not be easy. According to a study by the Marshall Institute, a Washington-based research organization, to compensate for a U.S defense that is 90 percent effective, the Soviets would have to more than quadruple the number of their strategic ballistic missile warheads. At what this would cost, it would make more sense for Moscow to invest these resources into systems to defend themselves from U.S. nuclear attacks.14 Moscaw's Plan. Greater S o viet uncertainty can be achieved not only from lowering the number of warheads which penetrate the defense, but from breaking up the finely tuned structure of' a coordinated Soviet attack. By pinpointing different but functionidly related targets, the Sov i ets plan to disrupt the U.S. capability to retaliate effectively.lS If they faced effective and survivable defenses of U.S. missiles and command, control and communcation centers, however, the Soviets never could be certain whether a coordinated attack wo u ld hit all the right targets at the right time. Example: a Soviet first strike may destroy a large nbmber of ICBMs, but not the command and control sites which afterwards could coordinate an accurate counterattack with the surviving missiles. Or perhaps m a ny ICBMs and some command and control sites are destroyed, while most bomber bases are not. The Soviets would then have to face a massive U.S. bomber attack REINFORCING DEIERRENCE Strategic defenses reinforce deterrence because they increase uncertainty a b out the success of an attack and because they enhance the survivability of ICBMs and long-range bombers. Strategic defenses also give the U.S. a competitive advantage against the Soviets. By countering ballistic missiles, they give the U.S. strategic 12. S ee Hoffman, op. cit p. 220 13. The Soviet Union targets milita missile submarine ports, and command, control and communcation centers in the United States 14. The calculations are by the author based on information in the Marshall Institute Re ort. Marsha ll analysts conclude that against a 90 percent effective U.S. defense, 38,OOO warhea a s would be needed by the Soviets to destroy 1,OOO of the highest priority military installations in the U.S. See assets fvst and foremost, not civilian targets.

Thus the U.S would enhance deterrence considerab 7 y by protecting nuclear missiles, strate#c bomber bases, ballistic waskngton D.C George C. Geor e C. Marshall Institute, Report the Technical Panel on Missile Defense in the 199Os, Institute, 1987 pp. 7-8 15. Hof fman, op. cit., p. 204 9 leverage against a Soviet nuclear arsenal that puts a premium on heavy, multi warhead ICBMs capable of quickly destroying U.S. missiles in their silos.

Forcing the Soviets to be cautiouS Military planners are a cautious lot. They n ormally assume the worst about an opponent. Military planners use worst-case scenarios in planning because they do not want to be surprised by intelligence failures or the consequences of mistaken judgments about the capability of the enemy.

Effective and survivable strategic defenses would introduce an element of restraint into crises.16 Facing U.S. strategic defenses, the Soviets would make military decisions according to worst-case estimates, probably assuming that U.S defenses are more capable than th e y really are. In strategic matters, the Soviets traditionally are cautious The best strategic formula for maintaining stability in a crisis would be to achieve offensive arms reductions combined with deployed strategic defenses that are survivable, capabl e of refiring, and comparable in effectiveness on both sides.17 Such an approach would ensure that, as defenses are deployed in phases, no side will ever have the incentive to strike the other first.

Even if all these conditions are not met, strategic defe nses could still contribute to crisis stability. They would complicate Soviet targeting, force Soviet decision-makers to be cautious in a crisis, and provide protection against accidental nuclear launches.

Arms Control Stability has been the case with SDI , they have kept the Soviet Union at the bargaining table discussing offensive arms reductions. It is unlikely that the Soviets would have agreed to eliminate intermediate and short-range nuclear missiles in Europe if it had not been for the pressure of S D I Far more important is that if the Soviets deployed strategic defenses, they would find it in their interest to achieve further reductions in strategic offensive missiles. With their strategic defenses, the Soviets would want to keep the number of U.S. m u lti-warhead missiles as low as possible to improve the effectiveness of their own defenses Strategic defenses can play a positive role in arms control negotiations. As 16. See Kober, op. cit p. 129 17. James A. Thompson, "Deterrence, Stability, and Strate gic Defenses in Hoffman, et al op. cit p 352 10 CONCLUSION For years the U.S. hastrelied on an offensive nuclear strategy of deterrence.

So far it has helped keep the peace. It is less likely to do-so in the future. The Soviet Union's nuclear buildup casts doubt on the credibility of the U.S. deterrent.

The changed strategic balance has exposed flaws in the U.S. strategy of offensive deterrence. This strategy increasingly lacks credibility with the Soviets and U.S allies. Without defenses of any kind it of fers no fallback if deterrence fails. It could be unstable in times of severe crisis, and it demoralizes the West while emboldening the East. Finally, it misunderstands the nature of Soviet strategy and warfighting doctrines Devising a New Strategic Doctr r ne To accomodate the strategic defenses which someday will be deployed as the result of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the U.S. should be contemplating a new strategic doctrine coupling offensive to defensive forces to ensure deterrence. A comprehensiv e study should determine how this doctrine could guide strategy, force planning, and operations of strategic forces.

Strategic defenses can bolster deterrence by denying the Soviets the option of a calculated first strike against 'U.S. command centers and nuclear forces. By complicating Soviet targeting of U.S. forces and command centers, strategic defenses could break up coordinated nuclear attacks, thereby making limited Soviet first strikes unsuccessful and very-risky, and reducing damage in a protracte d war.

Strategic defenses also could also force the Soviets to be cautious in times of crisis because of the military need to overestimate the effectiveneis of U.S. strategic defense forces. And they could provide a more stable arms control environment as well by keeping the Soviets at the bargaining table to reduce offensive nuclear forces In this doctrine the deterrent role of strategic defenses should be recognized.

It is time, therefore, to think seriously about the specific ways in which strategic def enses can reduce the risk of war. The task of deterring war, the preeminent aim of U.S. national security policy, should not rest on the threat of suicide. It should rest on the assurance that no Soviet attack would ever achieve unambiguous victory.

Kim R. Holmes, Ph;D.

Deputy Director of Defense Policy Studies

About the Author