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Balanced Forces or Counterforce—Does It Make a Difference?

By George E. Lowe

These conflicts can be grouped into four categories: organizational, roles and missions, weaponry, and strategy, all of which are interrelated. One of the basic reasons for the failure of the various unification acts to unify the services has been their failure to acknowledge this interrelationship. All reorganizations since 1947 have concentrated mainly on the form or structure of the Department of Defense and only incidentally on roles, missions, weapons, or strategy, due perhaps to the relative simplicity of changing an organizational chart. Congress has been very slow to make any basic changes that would eliminate one of the services, relinquish its control of the purse-strings, or create a single Chief of Staff. Service roles and missions hammered out in the Key West and Newport Agreements in 1948 have been barely tampered with since, except for an Army-Air Force agreement in 1952 over tactical air, and the Wilson Memo in 1956 on missile and aircraft range. Although weapons have undergone many revolutions since 1948, their roles andmissions remain basically the same. Jet bombers, guided missiles, ballistic missiles, atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs, tactical nuclear weapons, supercarriers, atomic submarines, and satellites have entered the arms inventory. America's grand strategy has changed—containment, massive retaliation, deterrence—yet the services are more strongly entrenched than ever. The public probably will not see the disappearance of anyone service in the future, but it is likely to see its relative importance readjusted as indicated by its budgetary share of the defense pie. We can expect the 1955 to 1961 "stationary" budget levels (Air Force, 46-48 per cent; Navy, 26-28 per cent; Army, 22-24 per cent) to approach once again their traditional 1:1:1 ratio. This will come about because of an inevitable shift from basically a one-weapon, one-war strategy to a multi-weapon, multi-war strategy. The once favored service, its allied industry, and its political supporters will undoubtedly protest strongly, but, fortunately, fragmentation within their ranks will make it politically possible to carry out the strategic switch without harming the national interest.

What we are really witnessing is the continuing 20th century struggle over the way to wage modern war. Traditionalists call for "balanced forces" and plan to meet enemy military forces in combat; Utopians demand "airpower dominance" (counterforce) and plan to obliterate enemy war-making potential. But the Age of Deterrence has introduced a new factor into Traditionalist rationale. They are no longer sure that either total or limited wars can be won absolutely. They believe the purpose of thermonuclear weapons is to prevent war, and they prevent war by adopting a defensive second strike posture. Although aiming their thermonuclear weapons at the enemy's industrial base, they differ from the Utopians in that they consider it impossible to "win" an exchange. But should deterrence fail, they would be aiming at the same targets as the Utopians. Limited wars, the Traditionalists maintain, by definition cannot be carried to unconditional surrender.

The Utopian answer to the Missile Age is to attempt to create a "war-winning," relatively bloodless strategy called counterforce. They now claim their targets are enemy thermonuclear deterrent military forces. If counterforce is big enough, it will be able to cover all contingencies; if you have enough hydrogen bombs (the single weapons approach), all problems will be solved. "The dog that takes care of the cat can handle the kittens too." Plans for limited wars and sub-limited wars will take care of themselves. Despite the switch of targets between Traditionalists and Utopians, which upon closer examination is no switch at all providing America remains a second strike nation, the basic strategic struggle of the postwar world continues unabated.

A recurrent theme in the postwar world has been the doctrinal struggle engaged in by Traditionalists with their rallying cry of "balanced forces" and Utopians, operating under their theory of the "supremancy of the air-nuclear weapon." The problems of Department of Defense organization, service roles and missions, and new weapons are entangled in this doctrinal struggle. By high-lighting the real nature of the doctrinal conflict, perhaps insight may be gained into the continuing debate over Department of Defense problems. For purposes of argument and structure, there are two doctrines—finite or balanced deterrence (Traditionalist) and counterforce (Utopian)—stemming from post-World War II confusion caused by the inability to read properly the lessons of the recently completed conflict.

The almost simultaneous collapse of Japan with the advent of the atomic bomb carried by newly unveiled B-29 long-range bombers helped most of the world (except Russia and Red China) forget the lessons of land and sea war in the Pacific: the guerrilla nature of jungle war and the luxury of being able to place useable, amphibious forces anywhere desired if you have control of the seas. MacArthur was installed as proconsul in Tokyo and forgotten until Korea. The fleet that won the war soon foundered on rocky shoals, its future uncertain. These postwar years were the seed bed for the competing doctrines that came to full maturity in the winter of 1960-61.

The Kennedy Administration seems to have redefined and carried to logical conclusion a decision the Eisenhower Administration had made sometimes after Sputnik, Lebanon, and Quemoy by accepting the strategic doctrine known as finite deterrence (Navy) or flexible response (Army). The absolute necessity in times of crises to have a bipartisan foreign policy has been apparent to many responsible writers on foreign policy. How much more important is a bipartisan national security policy. What the Kennedy Administration has done is to take one aspect of the Republican deterrent weapons program (Polaris) and weld another vital auxiliary to it—limited war forces. The Eisenhower Administration gave lip service to this latter concept and cautiously crawled in this same direction in its actions (Lebanon, Quemoy, and other crises as well) rather than truly supporting limited war readiness by essential budgetary deeds.

During the Eisenhower ascendancy and especially after 1955, two groups of liberals attacked the Eisenhower defense policy—the airpower group and the limited war bloc. Both groups complemented each other, depending on the needs of the hour. By far the greatest political advantage was gained by the airpower group because of spectacular Russian successes, first in jet bombers and then in rockets and space satellites. Both groups criticized massive retaliation: the airpower group because Eisenhower did not build enough bombers to give the United States complete numerical superiority and the limited war forces bloc because they felt the policy was not broad enough to handle the changing nature of the Communist assault.

Although the spectacular Russian technological breakthroughs helped all critics of the Eisenhower defense policy, they helped the airpower bloc most. Inthe high months of massive retaliation (late 1953 through 1955) the aims of both blocs were similar; however, international events and a metamorphosis in Communist tactics favored the limited war bloc.

The outstanding military event of the postwar era, of course, was Korea, followed by Indochina, Tachens, Suez, Lebanon, Quemoy, Laos, Cuba, and Vietnam. These international realities prevented the Eisenhower Administration from carrying out the logic of the new look of 1953; instead, force levels and budgetary shares after 1955 stayed relatively static. What this means is that by the fall of 1961 there were signs that extremist political factions (basically uni-interest) were aligning with Utopian defense strategists (basically single-weapon, single-strategy) for an all-out assault on President Kennedy's new strategy.

Of all the actions concerned with national security that the Kennedy Administration has taken thus far, three stand out: the stress on invulnerable second strike deterrent forces; the greater emphasis on limited war and paramilitary operations; and the appointment of one of the major formulators of flexible response or balanced deterrence, General Maxwell D. Taylor, as the President's military adviser.

As the opposing doctrines matured in the winter of 1960-61, it became apparent that they had long genesis. The following is a suggested ancestral tree:

1. Traditionalist: Balanced Forces (Forrestal, 1948); Supercarriers (1949); Korea (1950); The Old Look (1953); Limited War (1954-55); Mobile Sea-Based Deterrent (1956); Graduated Deterrence (1956); Flexible Response or Balanced Deterrence (1960-61)

2. Utopian: Air-Atomic Power, B-29, B-36 (1945-50); New Look (1953); Massive Retaliation (1954-57); Limited Nuclear War (1954-61); Counterforce (1958-61)

Let us begin then a brief analysis of these two competing strategic doctrines. First, we must seek a definition of the term "balanced forces." Professor Gordon B. Turner has provided a valid one in his National Security in the Nuclear Age:

The meaning of the term "balanced forces" is a matter of considerable complexity. It cannot be reduced to any single equation such as x plus y plus z, or army plus navy plus air force, equals national security. Not only must many factors be introduced to make up the balance, but the balance itself must be maintained in relation to a whole complex of variables, all of which shift with changes in the international situation and the development of new weapons. No connotation of equality is, therefore, involved, and the idea that the term implies equal appropriations for each of the military services is evidently erroneous.

In the first place, balanced forces implies a balance between missions and means, between tasks which must be performed and the ability to perform them. In this sense the concept of balanced forces is very much like the traditional naval doctrine of the balanced fleet…

Professor Turner has also summed up nicely the case for balanced forces:

Balanced military forces are needed then for the following minimum reasons: to ensure that military policies are flexible enough to implement a wide range of foreign policies and that the former never dominate the latter, and to ensure that our freedom of diplomatic and strategic maneuver is as great as the multiple contingencies of diplomacy and strategy require. Balanced forces are needed because different purposes require different means, because different geographic areas require varied types of military force, and because military power must have no critical weakness. They are required in order to deter the enemy both politically and militarily and to induce uncertainty in his mind—military policy must be aimed as much at preventing wars as winning them. They are necessary because today the maxim "negotiation through strength" means nothing unless it is balanced strength. Balanced forces are necessary in order to support and to satisfy allies, to gain consent of neutrals, and to give the appearance of consent to the policies of sovereign nations. They are needed to avoid isolation, to exert pressure where we cannot control, to create a viable and friendly climate of opinion, and to ensure that, as the major power of the free world, we are its leader, not its dictator.

The original inspiration of these concepts is not hard to find, for to modify an old Slavic saying, "Scratch a naval officer and find a disciple of Alfred Thayer Mahan." An obscure Navy captain before he started to write, Mahan inspired military and political leaders throughout the world. His theory of the influence of sea power upon history was based upon an analysis of the British navy and British history in the 17th and 18th centuries. He theorized that the elements of sea power went beyond the "battle fleet in being" to include geographic position, physical conformation, extent of territory, population, national character, and character of government. Specifically, this meant warships, bases, merchant ships, naval stores, and men to run the fleet. To carry out such a sea-oriented policy, England spread over the globe, putting her trust in God and dreading naught.

A small standing army and plenty of English gold enabled Britain to play the balance wheel in the European power struggle for 300 years. Mahan's disciples and other writers maintain it was the British fleet which created a Pax Britannica for the hundred years from Waterloo to Sarajevo. This same battle fleet also allowed America to resolve her national problems of expansion and slavery in splendid isolation.

Rather significantly, but not surprisingly if we accept Professor Daniel Boorstin's thesis concerning the non-theoretical nature of Americans, the United States has produced but one Mahan. The other military philosophers have been decidedly second rate; in fact, the consensus of criticism of Mahan as a historian finds him competent but not highly original. There has been a host of capable writers in the field of sea power, but generally they have been too parochial to have any lasting influence. Any "New Oceanic Theory" must go beyond sea power, accepting its valid features, but reworking them into broader national strategy, taking into account the effect of new technology, the nature of Communist expansion, and the effect of emerging peoples on the resources and stability of the planet. Mahan was an internationalist and believer in balance of power with a vengeance. An almost militant Christian belief permeated much of his writing, and one feels that he would have. been in favor of a Pax Marina guaranteed by Anglo-American sea power meting out direct punishment to any would-be aggressors or disturbers of the peace.

In World War I, Mahan's theories were put to a test and found wanting. True, the British blockaded the Central Powers, but for the first time in her history Britain suffered enormous losses in ground combat, on the Western Front. The winning blows of World War I were launched by massed infantry. Sea power was not the decisive force; rather, it was a balanced combination of land, sea, and air elements co-operating together that made the final victory possible.

Out of the slaughter on the Western Front came a new concept: leap over the bloody trenches with the airplane and hit the enemy where he works and lives. If his frontline troops are not made ineffective for lack of supplies and ammunition, home front morale will soon be wrecked by incessant bombing and will force the government to sue for peace. A few brave, highly skilled knights can be substituted for the millions of farmers' sons and city poor slugging out the war on the ground. The country with the most mechanics and strongest industry will win future wars, not the country with the largest armies.

This, then, was the dream of the Utopians: a cheap, quick, and easy air blitz, which would favor the side of the most technologically advanced nations. The theorists of this new strategy were: Lord Trenchard (British), who influenced Brigadier General William Mitchell (U. S. Army); General Giulio Douhet (Italian), Major Alexander P. de Seversky (Russian-American), Winston Churchill, General Orville A. Anderson (U. S. Air Force), Sir John Slessor (British), and Air Marshal Kingston McClourty (British). Throughout their writing several assumptions appear repeatedly: "War is Hell," but since evil aggressor nations insist on starting it, we must give them back double measure. We must create a force so powerful that it will enforce the peace for all time and guarantee a state of Pax Americana or Pax Aeronautica.

The Anglo-American bomber fleet would do for the 20th century what the British battle fleet had done for the 19th. Western democracies are singularly equipped to maintain their technological superiority because they have such a lead in complex technical equipment, which is vitally important to create such a superior bomber force that no nation can ever catch up to them. Furthermore, the average American is such an excellent mechanic that in this aspect of human skills we will be forever ahead. Since the 1940's, Utopian claims as to our areas of superiority have changed. We were first superior in industrial base, skilled mechanics, and pilots. With the advent of the B-17 followed by the B-29, B-50, B-36, B-47, and B-52, our superiority lay in the bomber vehicle itself and its elite crews. With the invention of the atom bomb, we had a double superiority—the plane and the bomb. When the Russians exploded an atom bomb in the fall of 1949, our superiority was expressed in terms of having the original bombers and superior numbers of bombs in our stockpile. Then with the advent of the hydrogen bomb, our superiority lay in vast numbers and "cleaner" thermonuclear weapons and a superior organization—the Strategic Air Command. When this was countered by the Russian development of a droppable hydrogen bomb, we responded by building more delivery vehicles and re-honing SAC. With the arrival of nuclear plenty, we allowed ourselves the luxury of basing a strategy on the use of tactical nuclear bombs, which we could produce in greater quantities than our opponents, and banked on our highly superior social institutions.

Once again as our supposed technical superiority is about to be cancelled out, we are falling back on the neutron bomb, the gigaton bomb, and the doomsday device with the high assurance that these will tip the scales our way once again. And now Major de Seversky in America: Too Young to Die! offers us a new panacea, "an unpenetratable defense system through new uses of electronics—a field in which we do lead (because we can outproduce anyone) ." Soon a newer cure—all will be found—the construction of extensive underground blast shelters. Here is one competition in which the Russians will never catch up with us—pouring concrete and digging holes. This concept, while it looks defensive in nature, is really offensive because it makes one's thermonuclear bluff all the more credible; it also makes thermonuclear war possible and could conceivably set the stage for the future initiation of a pre-emptive war.

Douhet had some interesting comments on aerial defense possibilities in the pre-missileera, and later was echoed by scores of airpower advocates from Lord Baldwin to Air Marshal Slessor: "The bomber will always get through." Writing in The Probable Aspect of the War of the Future, General Douhet theorized:

No aerial defense, because it is nearly useless. No auxiliary aviation, because it is superfluous. Instead, a single independent air force, to include all aerial resources available to the nation, none excepted. This is my thesis. Some people call it extremist, but really it is just a thesis which differs from the average thesis. The latter is always a poor solution, and in wartime the worst of all. Supporting this thesis brings me into conflict with valorous opponents who hold a different opinion; but I am confident that I shall win this battle, too.

Since the only way to defend oneself from aerial offensive is to attack and destroy the enemy aerial forces, and since every resource diverted from this fundamental aim might jeopardize one's chances of conquering the command of the air, the fundamental principle of aerial warfare is this: to resign oneself to endure enemy aerial offensive in order to inflict the greatest possible offensives on the enemy. (Italics added.)

In the thermonuclear-ballistic missile era this entails fixed-based missile sites absorbing the first blow and having sufficient strength left over to inflict unacceptable damage on the aggressor. The Utopians interpret the "unacceptable damage" to read "win" the thermonuclear exchange. This can only be done by a counterforce, for a force that cannot win and prevail cannot deter. And if deterrence fails, all Americans assuredly must want to "win" the resulting thermonuclear war. Thus the Utopian sees only imperfect, tenuous peace or catastrophic war. Balanced forces are vestiges of the prehistoric military world before Hiroshima. Any attempt to impose new air-atomic strategy on an old-fashionedconventional approach is doomed to failure and will take the nation down to defeat. Utopians firmly believe that if only the proper type and numbers of hydrogen-carrying delivery systems can be built along with the proper shelters and under-ground storage and recovery supplies, all possible world contingencies can be handled by nuclear weapons backed up by highly mobile, local forces fleshed out with "indigenous" ground troops and the national will to use these nuclear weapons.

There has been no outstanding theorist for balanced forces but rather a host of commentators on Mahan and 20th century war, who have laboriously constructed an alternative theory to victory through airpower. They include B. H. Liddell Hart, Walter Millis, Samuel Huntington, Robert E. Osgood, Henry Kissinger, Generals Taylor, Ridgway, Gavin, and Medaris, Hanson Baldwin, Captain Ralph Williams, U. S. Navy, Admiral George H. Miller, and Admiral Arleigh Burke. These Traditionalist writers and thinkers, like their counterforce counterparts, have modified their ideas in light of the new weapons, but by the fall of 1961 they had come full circle back to their original position before the H-bomb. In 1948 they felt that traditional forces were needed in addition to the atomic bomb. They granted that atomic weapons were important, but felt they had not eliminated the need for land and sea forces. Korea reinforced this belief.

The advent of nuclear plenty occurring at the end of the Korean War and the beginning of the Eisenhower Administration forced a temporary flirtation with the idea of using tactical atomic weapons to cancel out the supposed Communist manpower advantage. It soon became apparent that what the United States could accomplish in technology, the Russians were capable of duplicating, or, as C. P. Snow expressed it:

The overriding truth is a bleak one, if one is living in the physical presence of gadgets and spends one's creative force developing them: that societies at about the same level of technology will produce similar inventions. In military technology in particular, where the level of the United States and the U.S.S.R. is very much the same where the investment of scientists and money is also similar, it would be astonishing if either society kept for longanything like a serious, much less a decisive, technical lead.

It is overwhelming odds that one country will get its nose in front in one field for a short time, the other somewhere else. This situation, fluctuating in detail but steady in the gross, is likely to continue without limit. It is quite unrealistic, and very dangerous, to imagine that the West as a whole can expect a permanent and decisive lead in military technology over the East as a whole. That expectation is a typical piece of gadgeteers' thinking. It has done the West more harm than any other kind of thinking. History and science do not work that way.

By 1957-58 it had become clear that tactical atomic weapons would cancel themselves out, and proponents of balanced forces soon realized that modern technology had made it impossible to find a long-range advantage in weapon gadgetry. While agreeing that a thermonuclear deterrent was absolutely essential, Traditionalists wondered if there were not an upper or finite limit to these total war weapons. They questioned whether we were building into our nuclear arsenal "overkill" or the ability to obliterate all targets more than once. Why not build a small invulnerable thermonuclear force and concentrate on mobile land forces backed by proper sea and air support? This was a shift away from technical gadgetry toward geographically-oriented factors and the changing nature of the Communist challenge. Ironically, the doctrine of massive retaliation, while not nearly so successful as Paul Peeters claimed in Massive Retaliation, did force the Communists to change their tactics from direct aggression in Indochina to indirect aggression in the Middle East and Southeast Asia and consequently made a new, more flexible strategy for the West inevitable. The Russian version of massive retaliation-rocket rattling at Suez in 1956 and the Russian ICBM in August 1957, followed bySputnik in October —forced the West to shift, or at least to consider a shift, in its tactics. Whereas Dulles' pronouncement of massive retaliation was probably five years too late, since the Russians by January 1954 had already developed the H-bomb and a carrier vehicle, the Russian pronouncement of 1956 was probably five years too soon. Modern weapons systems cast their shadows before them and have foreign policy "payoffs" before military ones. The Eisenhower shift in tactics in response to the Russian ICBM pressed for rapid build-up of fixed and mobile-based liquid- and solid-fueled rockets, while at the same time keeping up our thermonuclear bomber capability. This was essentially a compromise between the Air Force and Army-Navy concepts of war and deterrence. Meanwhile, only lip service was paid to the other portion of the equation: the limited war forces whose usefulness was demonstrated in the Tachens, Syria, Lebanon, Quemoy, the Congo, and the Caribbean. It was apparent as the decade of the Fifties closed that reliance on thermonuclear-atomic weapons had not been able to halt the glacier-like spread of world Communism. In the spring of 1961, President Kennedy called for new tactics, new weapons, and new ideas to meet the continuing pressure of the Communist advance. They were long overdue.

The Traditionalists maintain that if only we had built up the proper type of conventional forces in Europe, we would not be faced with the terrible alternatives of nuclear weapons and World War IIIor retreat. The air supremists retort that if only we had built more bombers and protected them and our people better, the President would be able to go to the brink with a clear conscience.

If the German problem were to be resolved tomorrow, another and equally serious crisis could erupt anywhere along the arc of the Communist empire from North Korea to the Norwegian Arctic Circle. Atomic gadgetry is no answer to the problem of the Age of Deterrence. What is needed is a major strategy switch playing up our true long suits: the open society, our unique geography, our unexcelled industrial know-how, and our unequalled oceanic heritage.

Thermonuclear deterrent systems can be constructed either to deter a total war or to "win" it. It is my thesis that a nation can make the choice for stabilization and deterrence. This means: (1) creation of a finite number of invulnerable deterrents; (2) modernization and addition to the limited war forces; (3) increased paramilitary and unconventional warfare capability; (4) engagement in a radical and revolutionary economic, political, and ideological effort to make the most effective use of the time gained by the tri-level military stabilizatior; (5) minimal civilian defense measures largely of an "insurance" variety.

But if the choice is made for destabilization and "winning," the course is also obvious: (1) unlimited numbers of hardened, fixed-based missiles; (2) greatly accelerated arms race in space; (3) enormous civilian defense, recuperation and rehabilitation programs; (4) tremendous governmental regimentation.

The strategic course of the next two decades will be set in the next 12 months. It is now an open question which road the West will take. If the Kennedy Administration continues to make the brave choice for the "hardboiled" alternative of balanced forces and stabilized deterrence and resists the siren calls from the extreme left for unilateral disarmament and from the extreme right for pre-emptive war, these crisis-wracked years of the early Sixties will represent the turning point in postwar history. The choice of balanced forces is a hardboiled one because it requires doing politically unpopular things, such as increasing the draft and defense expenditures and intellectually mobilizing and educating the Atlantic Community for a half century of tension and uneasy "peace." For, in truth, there are no panaceas, no gadgets, no quick and easy solutions in an era that will see two enormously powerful civilizations each continually probing, testing, and challenging the soft spots of the other. The creation of the proper type of useable military force will play an essential part, but only a part, in the overall response of Western civilization to the challenge. Without useable military force, we would be at the mercy of Communist totalitarianism. Conversely, if we let the sheer power of thermonuclear explosives paralyze and blind us to the equally crucial political-economic, ideological, and psychological aspects of the West's posture, we might create a technical "win," only to lose our democratic institutions and our souls.

A graduate of Grove City College (Pennsylvania) with an M.A. in History from the University of Chicago, Lieutenant Lowe entered the Navy in 1953 via the OCS program. He attended air intelligence schools at Washington, D. C., and Alameda, California, and served in air intelligence billets 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. He is currently a Foreign Service officer with the Department of State.


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