The Political Potential of Parity

By Lieutenant Colonel Robert C. McFarlane, U. S. Marine Corps

From the U.S. perspective, being superior created a somewhat artificial or at least ambiguous environment for the policy process. For long stretches of the 30-year period, it didn't seem to matter very much how we integrated the several elements of national power—trade, capital, resources, diplomacy, and relations with allies—into foreign and domestic policies. We could afford—in terms of risks incurred to our survival—to offend allies, to take iconoclastic positions in which no interest was at stake, to go off on military crusades, and to waste our resources. The reason we could afford to do these things was that the result, in terms of outrage suffered in other capitals, was never severe enough to justify starting a war which the offended party knew it would lose. The Soviets backed down in Cuba because they knew that if they started a fight, the ensuing escalation to the nuclear plateau would find them inferior, and so they were deterred from starting a fight at all.

The legacy of this 30-year period contains some worrisome implications for the current and future policy process. For example, we must avoid the tendency toward post hoc, ergo propter hoc analysis. Specifically, it would be fallacious to ascribe the peace we have enjoyed for 30 years within the continental limits as owing to our superior wisdom, better strategy, brilliant diplomacy, or exemplary moral posture—or worse, to the goodwill and human kindness of other governments. We must not allow bad policies to take on legitimacy simply because they were not accompanied by holocaust. Having superior strategic military might has provided an enormous hedge for flabby thinking. We could afford less than optimal strategic planning because push was never going to come to shove. We have had the luxury of being able to be foolish. And while we would suffer losses measured in dollars, friends, and even lives, no American has been threatened by war here in the United States for 30 years. This history and the perception it may have bred mask the fact that peace comes ultimately because others know for sure that they will lose a war with us.

To be fair, there have been hundreds of issues—the resolution of which collectively established our high standing in the world today—which required this same cold analytical mentality and diplomatic excellence I appear to ascribe only to Europeans. Obviously, I am exaggerating to make a simple point. The point is this: for the first time in the postwar period, the Soviet Union is not militarily inferior to us. That makes the U.S.S.R. less reluctant to do things which may be inimical to our interests. We cannot bully the Soviets; we now have to manage our affairs in an entirely different light, paying much more careful attention to how we use the traditional instruments of national power and statecraft.

A new U.S. approach to dealing with "parity" is being shaped. The vital importance of the outcome was dramatized for me in a recent conversation with a staff member of the U.S. delegation to the 1959 Berlin negotiations. The circumstances, in terms of the strategic balance, were analogous because although the United States was in fact superior, we didn't think so. The Gaither report, published during the course of those negotiations, evaluated the Soviet missile breakthrough as redressing the massive U. S. nuclear superiority which had endured for the previous ten years. The effect of this new perception of nuclear balance was prompt and shattering in its implications. The U.S. position in the Berlin negotiations was changed dramatically. What had been a tough, uncompromising approach was altered fundamentally for the sake of accommodating Soviet interests—interests formerly stridently opposed. This example of an earlier U.S. reaction to perceived "non-superiority" is far from reassuring but may be useful in providing incentive for reversing current military trends.

Before going further in defining the task before us, it might be worthwhile to eliminate one or two non-problems that otherwise clutter up the debate. For example, we don't need to waste time going through a paroxysm to find out who "let" the Soviet Union become a great power. Any political entity in control of vast territory, human and natural resources, and possessing a strong sense of international purpose is a potential great power. It may take some time to consolidate its underpinnings, but someday it will arrive. Suffice it to say that in 1979 the Soviet Union has arrived, and nothing rational we might have done could have prevented it.

Another notion we ought to put behind us is that nuclear war is unthinkable. This widely promoted myth is largely the product of the rather facile observation that since both we and the Soviets have had nuclear weapons for a generation and haven't destroyed each other, we and they must have come to believe that to do so is eternally infeasible, wrong, and ruled out. While mass extermination may be anathema to western moral precepts, we must at least consider that the Soviets have been deterred by other accounts. The most important is that until recently, they would have been overwhelmingly defeated. Through 1969, even worst-case scenarios of a U.S. Soviet nuclear exchange reflected that the U. S. S. R. would suffer enormous devastation while emerging in a position of hopeless military disadvantage—and the Soviets knew that. Thus, the Soviets avoided nuclear war because they would have lost, but history tells us it was surely not because of any sentimental attachment to their fellowman.

A separate but corollary point implied in the foregoing speculation on future Soviet behavior should be that "it won't be like U. S. behavior." There is a surprising willingness within the U.S. strategic community to impute the U.S. motives and conduct while "nuclearly superior" to the Soviets. This would be wrong. Throughout the period of our unquestioned superiority, the United States was very circumspect in even threatening the use of nuclear weapons. This history, over the course of such events as the Berlin Blockade in 1948, the Korean War, and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, led ultimately to the discrediting of the strategy of massive retaliation. But it tells us nothing of how the Soviets would act were they superior, and we can in no sense assume parallel behavior. In fact, the role of force in Leninist ideology and the emphasis on the offensive in Soviet military doctrine leads one to quite the opposite conclusion.

Discussion of "winning" or "losing" a nuclear war is passé in many circles. Frankly, I don't believe a nuclear exchange is likely in the next few years. The very real events which could make a Soviet attack plausible must not be ignored, however. Specifically, if the Soviets were to reach a point in their nuclear arsenal development at which they were confident of being able to destroy all U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS) while retaining a substantial reserve force, what would deter them? The answer, of course, depends upon what a U.S. President would do if his own ICBM force had been destroyed, he had no other force available capable of assuring destruction of the Soviet reserve missiles, and U.S. cities remained untouched but hostage to attack by the Soviet reserve missiles. Would he launch a counterattack, knowing that such a counterattack could not avert destruction of U.S. cities and millions of Americans? Or would he withhold any U.S. counterattack and seek to achieve the survival of U.S. cities and their population through negotiation?

The point may be made that the above scenario is specious since it ignores the possibility of a U. S. launch-under-attack strategy. Such a point is well taken and, notwithstanding the several technical and political problems associated with adopting such a strategy, deserves thoughtful consideration. To be fair, I must admit to a certain intellectual sheepishness in trotting out this fairly shopworn harbinger of doom. It ignores completely, for example, that "assured destruction" of the Russian homeland by U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles and bombers must retain a substantial deterrent value for Soviet leaders. And to talk of the acceptability of millions of deaths lends such a surreal cast to a debate among humans as to beg credulity. I include the scenario and defend it as legitimate only as a very significant benchmark in the evolution of the U.S.-Soviet balance. Ten years ago, no one would have even postulated such a scenario. It is the trend, not today's static comparisons, which must be recognized, publicly identified as unacceptable, and reversed by the resolute adoption and vigorous pursuit of essential strategic weapons programs. For unless the trends are reversed, there is no question that one day a "nuclear victory" over the United States will surely be possible. Ironically, even then it won't be a violent victory. The Soviets will win just as we did over Cuba in 1962, because our leaders will know that we are inferior and in no position to start a fight.

Many scholars argue persuasively that nuclear war will remain unthinkable. Their arguments deal with assumptions about how contemporary Soviet leaders view their 60-year history, how Marxism-Leninism has evolved, how Soviet political and economic structure has changed to reflect a fairly heretical (in Marxist terms) view of the nature of humankind—a view which, over time, will not be incompatible with Western liberal democracy. Thus, the argument goes, the ideological incentive for war in the mind of the current, and putatively future, generations of Soviet leaders has eroded. A separate argument accepts that the ideological cleavage will endure but that traditional Soviet expectations of capitalism's decline and subversive methods of accelerating it are sufficient to their need and, of course, are less risky. These arguments are plausible and deserve serious consideration.

Other arguments finesse the ideological dimension and, concerning the trend toward Soviet military superiority, state that concerns over numerical imbalances (for example, in launchers, throw weight, and yield) erroneously presume successful functioning of the vital command and control systems. This argument, by people who acknowledge the excellence of Soviet missile technology, seems to contain its own contradiction. That is, if the Soviets could build a missile system achieving a 90%--plus probability of hitting our missile silos, why could they not build a much less technologically demanding command and control system which, when headed by a much more centralized decision process than ours, would assure that their nuclear attack plan could be implemented? At a minimum, the Soviets' confidence in their systems, which have been tested hundreds of times, ought to be at least as high as ours, considering that we have never conducted a shot from an operational silo! But all of these arguments have elements of merit which should be analyzed and assimilated to the extent of their worth. One of the purposes of this article, however, is to explain why current military trends make them irrelevant until we have satisfied certain baseline military conditions in order to avoid slipping beyond parity to a position of perceived military inferiority. The imperative of assuring that baseline requirement is born of the long lead time involved in catching up.

The United States can't afford even one year of unilateral restraint to ponder Soviet intentions. Once a nation is behind in the strategic nuclear balance, catching up can be a very lengthy, anguishing, and perhaps catastrophic process. The previous administration took the necessary action to assure essentialmodernization in our strategic posture in order to avoid such an imbalance. We are now engaged in analyzing how that balance may be maintained and possibly complemented by a SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) agreement. I won't dwell here on the various permutations or combinations which might emerge in the final protocol, treaty, and declaration except to make two general points. The first is that nuclear deterrence, unlike lower order deterrence, places a premium on trying to create certainties as opposed to uncertainties in the enemy's mind. Optimally, we would like the Soviets to be certain that our strategic systems will all work and are, in the aggregate, capable of surviving an attack in sufficient numbers to respond and succeed in inflicting unacceptable devastation on both their forces and the infrastructure of their society. We would also like them to be certain of our political will to do that very thing. Perhaps most important, however, we must try to make it certain in their minds that it will be ever thus; that we will not become fainthearted; that we will welcome professions and offers of restraint but will be guided by actions and capabilities. There are several ways in which our resolve may be signaled: declaratory policy, research and development policy, acquisition policy, and arms control positions; to name but a few. The ultimate objective must be to demonstrate bard evidence of an enduring military might which will, not be used as "bargaining chips" except in return for verifiable concessions of equal worth.

It is true, of course, that we will never succeed in creating these "certainties." The imponderables—even in areas where confidence derives largely from objective data—are too great. Consequently, we are really talking about degrees of "uncertainty." There is an extremely important distinction in a policy sense, however, between whether the U.S. goal is to create certainties or the much less demanding result—uncertainties. The latter term is a relative one subject to interpretation by strategic planners. During budget cycles when tough decisions are being made, it is far easier to cut a system if the result cannot be measured except in very gross estimates of "relative uncertainty" among Soviet leaders. If the goal is only to create some degree of uncertainty, the tendency will be toward cuts. This is particularly true when discussing nuclear weapons, the effects of which are so easily distorted by demagoguery such as "Both sides have enough power to destroy each other 40 times over."

The second point concerns the importance of recognizing the enormous psychological value of the technological advantage we possess. During the ten-year period in which much of our defense resources was diverted to non nuclear accounts, the Soviets have gained tremendous self-confidence from being able to match and exceed the U. S. missile force quantitatively. Their qualitative capabilities, while very substantial in many areas, remain inferior to our own, and this provides a critical advantage which must not be easily mortgaged. The United States simply cannot agree to limit severely its options in the one area in which it remains superior. Quite apart from the objective results of such potential concessions in terms of systems forgone, cancelled, or otherwise limited, is the enormous psychological impact upon the Soviets of our willingness to agree in a generic sense to substantial limits on the last "area" of superiority. It would be an unmistakable signal of lessened will. We tried unilateral restraint in the 1960s and saw the total absence of reciprocity which resulted. Some would say that the forgoing is but an elliptical disavowal of arms control negotiations generally. Not so. There are ample areas for testing the seriousness of Soviet intent toward arms control without mortgaging our ability in laboratories to ensure the vital hedges we need against a Soviet breakout in any of several areas.

The key question before U.S. planners is how the Soviet Union will act now that it is no longer inferior. Is military conflict more likely? How will the Soviets alter the pursuit of their interests? The potential for strategic nuclear conflict has been treated in a succession of studies by scholars over the years. The logical conclusion drawn from such assessments is that as long as the strategic balance is not allowed to erode past parity to the point of U.S. inferiority, the probabilities of a strategic nuclear exchange remain low. This follows from an inductive process—reasonably attributable to the leadership of both sides—which proceeds from the assumption that as long as neither side possesses the technical capability to attack the other side without placing itself at such risk of massive devastation as to destroy it as a society by any reasonable standard, mutual deterrence will endure. In a nutshell, if the gains are not worth the costs, there is no incentive to attack. Similarly, lower-order conflicts which contain a linkage to nuclear forces—war in Europe—remain unattractive because of concerns which endure about the outcome of a nuclear exchange. While Moscow may take comfort in recent trends in the European conventional balance, it cannot be absolutely confident of avoiding great destruction to the Russian homeland at the hands of the Western allies. And, of course, the ever-present escalatory threat of strategic nuclear exchange has not been removed.

That said, however, the attractiveness of political-military options other than strategic attack against the West is not difficult to appreciate. From the Soviet perspective, a review of the record of the last 15 years reflects some rather curious but encouraging anomalies. Without firing a shot (or being shot at), the Soviet Union has watched while the United States was brought to its knees in a foreign war after an investment of more than $100 billion. The industrialized democracies suffered general economic decline largely brought on by their reliance on foreign resources, and the balance of strategic forces reached parity, removing the 30-year restraint of inferiority from Soviet ideologically expansive proclivities. Several conclusions might arise from such a review:

  • The natural course of events might be just as effective as war in assuring the demise of capitalism, and it would be a lot less risky.
  • Even marginal success in disrupting resource markets—particularly oil—could produce synergistic results accelerating the capitalist decline.
  • Traditional techniques of using proxies, surrogates, and subversion in Third World areas could bring large dividends whether the United States takes the bait or not.

Thus, it seems unlikely that the Soviet Union will launch a direct military attack on the United States or even against important near-term U.S. interests overseas. This again derives from the escalatory potential of such confrontations, the outcome of which, while less certainly devastating, remain far from reassuring. Rather, it is to be expected that the Soviet Union will first test the political potential of parity at a point much lower on the spectrum of force through intensified use of traditional subversive methods or perhaps indirectly, as through expanded use of surrogates, most notably Cuba. A complementary policy could call for encouragement of revolutionary forces and radical regimes seeking to overthrow conservative pro-Western governments. Thus, the greatest threat is not of sudden Soviet military aggression but of indirect efforts to subvert our interests and to compete with us for influence in states whose loyalties—or at least nonalignment—are important to the United States and its allies.

The reliance of industrialized countries on Persian Gulf oil is well known. Indeed, some intelligence estimates predict that the Soviet Union, now self-sufficient in petroleum, will become an importer by 1985. Thus, the strategic importance of secure access to Persian Gulf oil is enormous. From the Soviet perspective, influence over production and pricing decisions of one or more of the leading producers would represent incalculable power. It is unlikely that the Soviets would choose to disrupt U.S. supplies because of risks already discussed. Rather, it is to be expected that their efforts would be indirect, seeking to erode Western solidarity gradually. A number of NATO countries are heavily reliant for petroleum on radical regimes such as those of Libya and Iraq. For example, Turkey, sitting astride a waterway of great importance to the Soviets, receives 83% of its domestic requirements from these two nations. Both countries are courted warmly by Moscow. If the Soviet Union were successful in influencing the production policies of Libya and/or Iraq for even a few days, it could have a catastrophic psychological impact on their customers. The possibilities for coping with this sort of crisis through sharing, deliveries from other producers, or short-term loans all seem plausible, but such an experience would have severe implications for Western solidarity.

A related threat is represented by Soviet assistance to revolutionary groups or states seeking either to overthrow conservative patrimonial regimes or to annex oil-producing regions in adjacent states. An example is Iraq’s ambitions in regard to Kuwait. Activities such as these are attractive to Soviet policymakers for a number of reasons. First, they provide the means for accelerating the long-anticipated decline of capitalism. In addition, they bolster the Soviet Union in its ideological competition with China as the champion of revolutionary movements. They also hold potential for improving the Soviet capability for projecting power overseas through the securing of base and overflight rights. Finally, in the wake of Vietnam—a conflict in which the political economy was decisively advantageous to the Communist side—the Soviets could hope to induce another long military involvement of major U.S. force.

In short, even it an era of parity, it is very much in the Soviet interest to avoid confrontations with the United States. Rather, the U.S.S.R. seeks to exploit indirect means—insurgent forces, terrorist groups, subversion, third country governments—to foment crises for the United States. The United States must be prepared to react to such events as the following: reduction or curtailment—whether by political decision or violence—of oil deliveries to NATO countries or other allies; insurgent threats to governments controlling resources vital to the United States or its allies; violence or the threat of violence against U.S. nationals abroad beyond the protective capabilities of the host government; and threats to the pro-Western orientation of countries, such as Singapore and Indonesia, controlling chokepoints vital to the secure passage of international commerce. As a complement to these indirect methods, the Soviets are also seeking to enhance respect for their power and to gain influence directly by the overt deployment of their own forces, through the use of advisors and offers of military assistance. The Soviets have recognized that states make judgments as to relative power and decide matters of political and economic affiliation based upon daily perceptions of power-ships on the horizon, space launches, the outcome of periodic confrontations (for example, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the October Mideast War in 1973) and comparative tangible benefits offered by the United States and U.S.S.R., such as economic and military assistance. The Soviet Union has girded for a long-term competition for influence through the vigorous use of each of these instruments of power. The U.S. response to events such as these need not—indeed cannot—be purely military. On the other hand, the U.S. response cannot be effective over the long term—vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, our allies or the Third World—if it is not backed by credible force. It must be credible in the sense of readiness, availability where needed, and strength sufficient to the threat.

The design and employment of forces for these kinds of contingencies present several problems and would require a separate article for adequate treatment. A few general comments may be worthwhile, however. First, the location of crises is unpredictable. Even where areas of tension are identifiable, it is usually unwise to station major U.S. forces for extended periods on foreign soil unless the threat is comprised of large fixed forces in being as in Europe. Garrison forces are either there in strength or totally absent when what is normally critical in crisis management is the president’s ability to meter the application of force. At the same time, the forces must be responsive where required in timely fashion and must not rely upon an extensive logistic tail, base support, or overflight rights. In addition they must, of course, have the inherent military capabilities to deal with the threat—the necessary firepower, mobility, and mass.

These criteria for structuring forces are met in varying degrees by the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. The point of this article has been to assert that it is low-order conflict which provides the most probable mode for Soviet testing of the political potential of parity. The corollary conclusion is, of course, that it is that threat to which our forces must be addressed.

Of course, for a nonmilitary writer there is another important corollary. Coping with any threat of conflict takes more than forces; it takes will. The readiness of the American people to support U.S. military involvement in a foreign conflict in the wake of Vietnam—particularly a low-order, difficult-to-define "peripheral" conflict—is very uncertain. Understanding that fact and its derivation—why Americans stopped supporting U.S. policy in Vietnam—are essential first steps in consolidating American will. Frankly, I believe the reservoir of national resolve to defend U. S. interests is fuller than most people think, regardless of the character of the conflict. My perceptions are unimportant, however. It is the unmistakable expression of that will throughout the country, after a thoughtful articulation from Washington of the challenge before us, which will be respected in Moscow. Inducing that expression of will is the burden of leadership today.

Lieutenant Colonel McFarlane was graduated from the Naval Academy in the class of 1959. His service in the Marine Corps includes command of the first U.S. artillery unit to land in Vietnam (8 March 1965) and three years as a staff officer responsible for representing the Marine Corps through the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the development of U.S. policy for the Middle East and South Asia within the National Security Council planning system. He holds an M.S. degree in international relations as Olmsted Scholar at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. In 1971-1972, he served as a White House fellow; from 1973 to 1976, as Military Assistant to the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs; and in 1976-1977, as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. Following a tour as senior research fellow at the National Defense University, where this article was written, he was assigned in 1978 to his current billet as operations officer, 12th Marines, with the Third Marine Division in Okinawa. He is the author of a November 1971 Proceedings article, "At Sea, Where We Belong," and a 1978 Westview Press book, Crisis Resolution: A Study of Crisis Management During the Ford Administration.


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