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Deterrence—The Next 20 Years

By Lieutenant George E. Lowe, U. S. Naval Reserve

It is my contention that this new situation will tend to create a precarious balance which will then spawn a host of alternative weapons, economic policies, and cold war psychological-political maneuvers. A glance at history will reveal that the situation which is about to be created by the very existence of these continent-spanning thermonuclear-tipped missiles is not necessarily a unique one.

Admiral Sir William James, Royal Navy, in a short "Essay on Sea Power" unwittingly threw valuable insight on a deterrent situation which occurred during World War I.

There were a great many people in high places who, because there was no battle, could not or would not understand that the whole of our war effort hinged on the Grand Fleet. Because the Germans did not venture to exploit the power of their high seas fleet, it did seem that the enormous battle power accumulated in that seven and one-half miles of capital ships was wasted. But if Jellicoe had mishandled the situation at Jutland, or if during certain periods when, owing to dockings and accidents, the British fleet was reduced, the Germans had seized the opportunity to put the issue to the final test, the war might have taken a very different course.

In other words, the British Grand Fleet and the Imperial German Battle Fleet contained or deterred each other. The function of both fleets turned out to be merely standing ready to fight, rather than fighting. The British, with Allied help, relied on one of their most effective weapons—the blockade. The Germans replied with a counter blockade made possible by the unrestricted use of the submarine, a relatively new weapon.

The point to ponder and remember is that the resultant effect of a deterrent situation is to force the belligerents to look in alternative directions—political, economic, and military—in an attempt to resolve a situation created by the stabilizing effect brought about by relatively invulnerable weapons systems. The elaborate conventional harbor defenses, warship screens, torpedo boats, aircraft, and zeppelin early warning systems that protected the British and German High Seas Fleets were, of course, quite primitive when compared to the highly sophisticated electronic curtain the United States has erected over the northern approaches to the Western Hemisphere to protect the Strategic Air Command, our vulnerable fixed-base deterrent system.

But the purpose and effect of both efforts was to protect the main guarantors of the nation's security from a sudden surprise attack. In their respective ages, both the battle fleet and heavy bomber were regarded as the nation's "First Line of Defense." Admiral James asserts that "one capital ship coming across a large convoy could sink the whole lot in a very short time." The convoy system was vital to the continued existence of Great Britain in both world wars. Lewis Strauss, then Chairman of the A.E.C., in an historic news conference held after the H-bomb explosion in the spring of 1954, informed the press and the world that one H-bomb could "take out" any city on the face of the earth. There are few who would question that large urban-industrial complexes are the heart of our modern technological society and are vital to our super-power status. If a relationship between the deterrent situation in World War I and that of today could be expressed by a proportion it might be:

British and German Grand Fleets: An Industrial Economy, 1914-18

U. S. SAC and Russian "SAC": An Industrial Economy, 1961

Britain was the predominant sea power prior to World War I. The real challenge to the British Fleet, although not immediately evident, was the German submarine, and not the apparent challenge of more and bigger battleships. Beginning in the late 19th century, Germany was the challenger as she attempted to build a counterforce battle fleet. She was greatly aided by the British invention, the Dreadnaught, a super ship which automatically and almost overnight made the navies of the world obsolete, Britain's included. The Russian ICBM of 1957 portended much the same effect on the Allied bomber fleet, but this fact, like the significance of the earlier naval race, has not been thoroughly absorbed by the Free World.

World War I broke out before the Germans could construct a vastly superior fleet, and the relative balance of the two fleets led to a standoff, punctuated only by the indecisive Battle of Jutland. In the course of World War I, the Germans improved upon an American Invention—the submarine. The German submarine commanders of World War I convinced the civilian authorities that the new undersea form of warfare would be decisive in eliminating Britain from the war. Even if unrestricted submarine operations were to cause America's entry into the conflict, they argued, it would be a year before any significant number of Yanks could get to France, and by that time the decision would be Germany's. Faced with a deterrent situation at sea, Germany turned to the submarine as her alternate weapon.

The primitive technology of the early submarines, however, coupled with insufficient numbers of these boats, caused their campaign to fail. Although they sank 2,500 vessels in 1917 alone, the Germans had lost their gamble. The time gained by the battle fleet stalemate and the unrestricted submarine warfare had not been used effectively enough to enable Germany to win World War I.

A second example of deterrence, this time on land, can be found in the course of World War I. On the Western Front, trench warfare stabilized itself late in 1914 after the Battle of the Marne and remained relatively static through 11 November 1918. All the offensive strength that could be mustered by General Haig in Flanders, General Nivelle at the Somme, or Von Hindenburg at the Second Battle of the Marne, yielded but a small area of barbed wire, mud, and corpses. The cost was tremendous—a whole generation of British, French, and German manhood. So much had the defensive overwhelmed the offensive that even the fresh troops of the American Expeditionary Forces could not completely overcome the Hindenburg Line, and Germany was given truce terms.

What the opponents did not realize was that the maws of modern industry spewed forth so much steel, explosives, barbed wire, and so many machine guns and artillery shells that war could take on a totality that had been merely foreshadowed with the American Civil War. Unprotected human bodies were cut down like Kansas wheat, falling in neat stacks before grim reapers with machine guns. Many potentially significant inventions were introduced in order to break the stalemate that modern industry and weaponry had created. The Germans surprised the British at Ypres with poison gas, but failed to take advantage of their technological breakthrough. The British, thanks to the prodding of Winston Churchill, put the tank into action, but in insufficient numbers and with traditional tactics, causing the experiment to come to naught. The airplane was used in a way that brought back memories of days when knighthood was in flower. It had little effect on the outcome of the war, but along with the tank and poison gas, it gave a few gifted strategists an insight into the nature of the next war.

What the stalemate on the Western Front did do—with its tremendous and endless consumption of ammunition, supplies, and troops—was to force the governments of all the belligerent nations to offer the people some great semi-religious cause for which to fight. Only then would all this suffering and death make sense. In other words, the belligerent nations made the war a Holy Crusade. The high idealism of the Fourteen Points, the League of Nations, and slogans like "Make the World Safe for Democracy" appealed to Allied and Central Powers alike.

Had the war ended in 1916, there would have been a chance for a sane peace. If the pleadings of the Pope and President Wilson for "Peace with Honor" had been heeded, the world would be a vastly different place today. It can be said that a basic reason why a negotiated settlement was not reached sooner was the fact that the military leaders and statesmen did not understand the nature of total war and the deterrent situations it can create. The failure to realize this cost 35,000,000 dead and wounded, 337 billion dollars, and the rise of totalitarian ideologies throughout Western civilization—pregnant with death and destruction for untold millions more. A stalemate had, in fact, been created on the sea as well as on the land. On the sea a new weapon, the submarine, was tried and had failed. On land, tactics were basically the same—human bodies against barbed wire and machine guns. When the new weapons—gas, tanks, and aircraft—proved indecisive, fresh troops and superior numbers triumphed in the end.

The mental trauma that this fantastic bloodletting left on the Western mind was in part the cause of the inability of the democracies to stop Mussolini, Hitler, or Tojo until World War II was inevitable. The Trenchard-Mitchell-Douhet doctrine of strategic or mass area bombing of enemy supplies, factories, and people is a direct outgrowth of an attempt to prevent a repetition of the horrible trench warfare of World War I. Since the airplane could leap over trenches and strike at the industrial heart of an enemy nation, it was advocated as a more humane way of waging war. Its employment would result in a quick and relatively bloodless victory. In the years after World War I, this new factor, the airplane, made its appearance on the stage of military weaponry and strategy. Its prophets saw in this invention the death knell of the battleship and the seapower strategy related to it.

Thus we have seen that the inability to realize that a deterrent situation had occurred on the Western Front in late 1914 and the failure to negotiate outstanding differences between the belligerents had far-reaching ramifications. It was the blindness of the world leaders to the fact that total war was obsolete as an instrument of national policy which caused World War I to increase in casualties, cost, and consequences. As early in the century as 1904-1912, it was apparent that total war, backed by the total mechanical and human resources of an industrial society, did not pay. Sir Norman Angell won the Nobel Prize in 1912 for his book, The Grand Illusion, in which he attempted to prove that to win a world war was unprofitable because the victor would suffer as much or more than the vanquished. Yet this truth, to which Britain and France can attest today, was not accepted in 1912. Even the tremendous destruction visited upon Germany and Japan did not teach the lesson that "total war has become total nonsense."

The introduction of the A-bomb in the last days of World War II caught the public imagination like no other of man's prior inventions. Yet belligerents probably could have fought and lived with the A-bomb. Not so with the H-bomb. By no stretch of the imagination can the thermonuclear bomb be regarded as more of the same old TNT, for in destructive power, the heavens are literally the H-bomb's limit. What trench warfare of 1914-1918 failed to do, and what the high-explosive and fire-bomb raids of 1939-1945 later failed to do, the advent of the atomic and thermonuclear explosives did in fact do. They created a situation in which responsible opinion in West and East are in essential agreement: in a total thermonuclear war there would be no victors, only survivors. The truth of the mechanization of modern war has at last sunk into the consciousness of the prevailing strategists of the Communist and non-Communist world, except those who allege that thermonuclear wars can be "won." Therefore, they argue, we should strain every resource and sinew to make sure the type of force we create can "win" this total thermonuclear war. Before examining this line of argument, let us look at a negative deterrence situation that occurred in World War II.

All through the "war of survival"—President Roosevelt's term—Adolf Hitler boasted of secret weapons. It is generally conceded that the V -1, ME-262, V -2, and the Type XXI submarine were technically far in advance of anything the Allies had developed along these lines. For the most part, they were introduced in dribbles, "too little and too late," and so did not affect materially the course of World War II. But the invading Allied armies uncovered a potent and deadly weapon that Hitler, even in his most desperate hours, did not use—poison gas. Had this "G," or nerve gas, been used in great quantities, the Allies would have been caught completely unprepared for it. The Germans were deterred from using this superior chemical warfare breakthrough for two reasons: they supposed that the Allies had a similar gas, and the loss of air control would have exposed all German cities and front line troops to a superior delivery capability. Although both sides had the capacity to produce germs for bacteriological warfare, this alternative to high explosives likewise was not employed by any of the belligerents in either World War I or World War II. Once again, a deterrent situation had been created. One alternative weapon, the A-bomb, which was developed in World War II, was introduced too late to affect the war in Europe and its actual effect on the Pacific War is highly controversial.

The fact that airpower was the dominant force in World War II cannot be disputed. What caused the heated and continuing arguments between the services was the definition of airpower. The world navies were among the first to realize the tremendous potential of aircraft and airpower. Soon the airplane was married to the ship, and the dominant sea weapon of World War II, the carrier, was born. Hence, there were two symbols of airpower that came out of World War II; the B-17 heavy bomber and the heavy attack carrier. These weapons represented radically different concepts of warfare. To the Air Force, airpower meant primarily "strategic airpower," symbolized in the B-17 and B-29, whose targets were the enemy's cities and industries. To the Navy, it meant "discriminating strategic bombing," a selective destruction of military and industrial targets carried out by attack and fighter aircraft from the mobile airfields of the Navy's carriers. To the Army, Marines, and part of the Air Force, it meant the close air support given infantry, armor, and artillery by coordinated dive bombing and strafing attacks by fighters and fighter-bombers.

The Air Force believed airpower was indivisible and tried repeatedly to absorb all airpower under its control. The Army fought a losing battle to control its own aircraft until 1956, but with the advent of the helicopter and air cushion vehicles, Army air is staging a strong comeback. Naval air, after losing the 1948-49 B-36 bomber-carrier struggle was "saved" by the brutal realities of the Korean War, a type of limited engagement that was perfect for mobile, sea-based, close air support. This limited type of conflict was claimed to be an impossible occurrence by the pure air-atomic strategists. During the years 1948-1960, the Air Force put its faith and major effort into the creation of the superbly trained and equipped Strategic Air Command. By all normal rules of the game the heavy bomber should have been the dominant weapon for a much longer time than it has been. Its ascendancy can probably be assigned at the most to the ten-year period from 1949-1959, and even this time span is open to controversy. The SAC was, and is, a magnificent weapon, but in the view of many unbiased observers, it is a "fading deterrent."

In the post-World War II world, the challenger to America's dominant position as the leading power in the world has been Soviet Russia. This challenger encouraged the United States to think that the Communist world was creating a SAC counterforce type of weapons system in the years 1954-1958. We first responded to this deception by building a 2,000-plane counterforce offensive deterrent. But most intelligence analysts feel the Russians switched their main effort to intercontinental ballistic missiles. Like the Germans of World War I, who developed the submarine to counter the British battleship, the Russians competed with our heavy bomber, but countered it with a radically new weapon. The ICBM challenged and countered the heavy bomber, and what has been our reaction? Fortunately, it has been a dual one. Some defense leaders borrowed a trick from naval architects by trying to armor or harden bomber and missile sites. The pace of technology has been so accelerated that concrete domes designed for the B-52 have never been built. Instead, dispersal or mobility (air alert) has been our answer to safeguard our vulnerable bombers. Our missiles have been given the armor treatment by the decision to place them deep in concrete silos and we hope that the Russians cannot increase the size of their warheads faster than we can pour concrete. This seems to be a vain hope, especially if the latest Khrushchev boast of being able to place 60 tons in orbit is found to be a statement of fact. It is also an expensive and dangerous decision as it makes the "open" society of the U. S. homeland the world's most tempting target.

The second and perhaps more fruitful avenue of response is to face squarely, with all its vast implications, the fact that fixed based deterrent systems, whether runways or concrete pits, are doomed in the new age we are entering. As we enter the age of the dominance of the deterrent, mobility of the missile platform must be the controlling factor. The Navy has been farsighted in its attempt to marry a missile to a seagoing platform. Fleet Admiral Nimitz, in his farewell address, spoke forcefully of this possibility as early as 1947. However, it was not until the twin breakthrough of a lightweight H-bomb and a solid-fueled rocket occurred in late 1955 that the sea-based mobile deterrent became technically feasible.

The United States has made an environmental switch which immediately turns the tables on any potential aggressor. If we respond properly to the challenge of the missile age in which the invulnerable deterrents will be dominant, we shall have no need to be fearful. By this I mean, of course, the effective use of Polaris and a related group of mobile deterrents.

The evolutionary line from the battleship to the aircraft carrier to the Polaris submarine is a direct one. The key here, as described by Professor Samuel Huntington of Columbia University, is the projection of power from the sea. The deterrent reach (1914-1960) has varied from 16-mile naval gunfire to 600-mile attack aircraft to 1,300-mile Polaris today and 2,500-mile A-3 Polaris missiles tomorrow. The platforms have varied, but the principle has remained the same: use the inherent mobility of the seas with their 70 per cent of the world's surface, their international character, our historical tradition, and the acquired skills of the American people. Regardless of the technological inventions modern science develops, the geographical features of this planet remain basically the same. Mahan's principles, properly interpreted, are as valid today as when he enumerated them at the turn of the century. The enduring character of military strategic principles founded upon a thorough understanding of geography is vividly illustrated by an anecdote in the 1 September 1960 issue of The Reporter in a story by Robert L. Schiffer:

Dr. Aharoni told me that Israeli interest in Biblical archeology had been notably stimulated by a piece of military strategy evolved during the Arab-Israeli fighting back in 1948. At that time, one of the Israeli generals, Yigael Yadin, an archeologist and Biblical scholar, had met an Arab thrust from the direction of Syria by deploying his men along the same roads and mountain passes detailed in the First Book of Kings as a defense line for the old Israelites in repelling a similar invasion attempt. The maneuver turned out to be just as effective the second time around, and for the same geographic reasons. A few days later, when I visited Jerusalem, I made it a point to call on Dr. Yadin and ask him about his strategy. He said it was all a simple matter of knowing that the terrain had not changed since the Biblical battle plan was tested.

"Also," he said with a smile, "I was fairly sure that my adversary was not reading the same book."

I doubt whether the Soviets or the Chinese are reading and digesting Mahan's words on sea power. Even if they are, it is no guarantee that they will learn their sea environment any more effectively than did France, Germany, or Japan.

If the communization of China, the Berlin Blockade, or the Greek Civil War were not proof enough of the inadequacy of nuclear armament to meet all foreign policy or military contingencies, the Korean War should have been. This war in its early stages had elements of General Guderian's 1940 breakthrough in France and the American amphibious end-runs in the Pacific. The entry of the Chinese Communists in November 1950 created a scene out of the American Civil War—the first Battle of Bull Run—only with a much more tragic outcome. As the front became stabilized, Korea evoked memories of the stinking trench warfare of World War I and the mountain slugging in Italy in World War II. No one needs to be told that the Korean War was different, for it was obviously unique, being the first large-scale engagement fought under the aegis of a nuclear deterrent.

Various types of tacit agreements sprang up during this war, the most important of which hinged on the non-use of atomic weapons. A second agreement related to "sanctuaries"—the United Nations forces would not bomb the airfields or production plants beyond the Vatu, and the Communists would leave our carrier task forces and our supply bases in Japan and Korea alone. A third agreement related to the non-introduction of sufficient forces by either side to win a complete victory beyond the front line, established near the 38th Parallel. What these facts suggest, according to Thomas C. Schelling, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, and Robert Osgood, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, is "that it is possible to find limits to war ... without overt negotiation." Most analysts and military historians regard the Korean War as the latest manifestation of limited war, a phenomenon once common in military history. The Eighth Army was defeated at the Yalu in 1950 by faulty intelligence and a peasant army using "primitive" logistics and castoff equipment, but employing tactics learned in a quarter century of revolution and highly suitable for the razorback mountains of Korea.

Had America been willing to pay the price in blood and risk the possibility of an expanded conflict, there is no question but that the Chinese and North Koreans could have been pushed back beyond the Yalu. But political and military considerations dictated otherwise, and the peace of July 1953 was essentially the status quo ante bellum. The existence of numerous atomic weapons on the United Nations side versus a few atomic bombs, but a larger land army, on the Communist side contributed to a deterrence situation that allowed no total victory in Korea for either belligerent.

But now the West finds itself generally on the defensive despite the fact that our atomic-hydrogen stockpile has never been bigger and our means of delivery of the megaton weapons never surer. Our defense budget is nearly 47 billion dollars a year, and yet we are insecure.

One of the basic reasons for a seeming rigidity of our foreign policy and our increasing insecurity in the post-Korean War world is that we have not learned our lesson of deterrence thoroughly. The cardinal rule is that the mutual existence of relatively invulnerable deterrents forces the belligerents into new avenues of international competition.

The Soviets appear to have been building a relatively invulnerable deterrent hidden by the closed society of Communism, the vast distances of Europe and Asiatic Russia, and the latest advances in technology. Their creation of a relatively invulnerable deterrent based on the ICBM and IRBM guaranteed, with a sufficient margin of error, that in the unlikely event of a U. S. surprise attack, Russia would have sufficient retaliatory force to deliver unacceptable damage on American targets. This naturally costs them much less than our extremely expensive attempt to construct a counterforce deterrent.

Robert W. Coakley, an historian with the Department of the Army, in an essay included in National Security in the Nuclear Age, summarized this doctrine in a coherent manner:

In the deterrent system needed, the Army view is thus that massive retaliatory capacity is only one element, and while it agrees that this element must have first priority, it would place forces whose primary mission is to deter limited, or brushfire, wars in a priority only slightly below it .... To deter such efforts at limited advances requires balanced forces in being possessing the capability to intervene rapidly and effectively .... The concept is thus one of balanced deterrence, emphasizing the prevention of the outbreak of any kind of war by preserving a level of strength and versatility in its use that will be apparent enough to the Communist enemy to make him hesitant to undertake any aggressive move.

General Taylor and General Medaris have given this doctrine the name, "flexible response," while the Navy prefers to call it "balanced deterrence retaliatory forces," but both terms mean the same thing. This new strategy would be much more flexible and adaptable to the accelerating technology and world conditions than the old, now questionable, strategy of massive retaliation. This would be simply an attempt to take advantage of the facts of life of the post-H-bomb era.

A deterrence situation, once it approaches stabilization, makes it mandatory, if the competing nations are to stay in the running, to devise alternative strategies which take into serious consideration factors other than military—such as political, economic, psychological, and ideological. This is not to say that all research should stop on more and better deterrent systems or upon possible defenses to existing ones. The research should be accelerated and the deterrent weapons systems mixed, but they should not be made unnecessarily provocative in nature. It is true that all deterrent systems have some element of provocativeness built into them, but the point to bear in mind is that these systems should be as unprovocative as possible.

By moving into a balanced deterrence strategy, we will be better able to meet the Russian-Chinese challenge all across the spectrum from police action, limited war, and total war to ideological and economic competition. We can do this within the current limitations of defense allocations. This approach will not require us to turn into "a nation of moles blinking at the sun" as we emerge from our deep underground atomic shelters. Our form of government will not have to be changed into a neo-dictatorship, because with hair-trigger reaction times eliminated by the relatively invulnerable second strike deterrent, there will be time for deliberation by our elected officials.

In the decade ahead, the United States can persuade the Russians to play in our ball park and by our ground rules. By acting as if we believed that the age of the dominance of the air offensive was over and gradually phasing out those weapons systems that have been made obsolete by missiles, America can contribute effectively to a new, more stabilized deterrence situation. In the new missile age, we should create invulnerable, non-provocative deterrent systems and, in the words of Oskar Morgenstern, encourage our opponents to do likewise. Following Dr. Morgenstern's insight, we should discourage preventive strikes by not choosing weapons systems that would make the Russians' deterrent system more vulnerable. Instead, we should, once our invulnerable deterrents have been constructed, continually research into complementary deterrent systems to add to the mix, thereby making it impossible for any opponent to counter it by a single defensive approach and thus removing any temptation for an enemy to risk a surprise knockout blow. Secondly, we should take immediate steps to increase and modernize conventional Army forces and convince our NATO allies to do likewise.

There is indeed an alternative to suicide or surrender. Balanced deterrence or flexible response would take advantage of two of the West's long suits—seapower and an inventive industrial, scientific base—capable of coming up with an alternative defense to the highly dangerous and potentially disastrous sole reliance on tactical atomic weapons.

American leaders, by the choice they make in the next few years, will set the main strategic theme of the next 20 years. If this force is based on geographical and historical factors, the future weapons systems will favor mobile sea-based deterrence systems complemented by specially equipped Army and Marine Forces backed up by a modernized Air Force.

Nations, like individuals, are not predestined to some inevitable hell or damnation. There is a certain freedom of the will which enables them to influence their fate. This nation's choice of weapons systems and the environment in which they will operate is no less important in the determination of America's position in time's historical ledger than the internal and external political decisions and events of the next two decades.

Lieutenant Lowe entered the Navy in 1953 via the OCS program. He attended air intelligence schools at Washington, D. C., and Alameda, California, and then served in air-intelligence billets in the Pacific until 1957. From 1957 to 1961, he was an instructor in history and political science at Southeast Junior College, Chicago, and at the University of Maryland. Lieutenant Lowe has a B.A. in History from Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania, an M.A. in History from the University of Chicago, and he is now completing his Doctorate. He is currently a Foreign Service officer with the Department of State.


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