The closing months of the Seventh Decade of the 20th century found the United States busily engaged in the beginnings of one costly misadventure even as it was liquidating another. Superficially there was little resemblance between the two: Vietnam is half a world away from the United States, and there is scarcely anything about the nature and prospective employment of the Safeguard anti-ballistic missile system that can be compared with the guerrilla warfare in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
In fact, however, both ventures are marked by an ominous similarity of approach and method that suggests strongly that the errors of the first may be repeated in the second. The initial deployment of a "thin" ABM system at an announced cost of between six and seven billion dollars is reminiscent of the modest early increments to U. S. advisory groups in Vietnam undertaken in 1961 and 1962. Like Safeguard, these deployments of American strength, which by 1969 had expanded to 540,000 men, were oriented to the defense of a specific parcel of real estate under conditions which defined it as the prime target of the conflict. Like the open-ended demands of the land fighting in Vietnam, there is no force level of land-based missile defense which conceivably can be considered enough. After eight years of escalation in Vietnam the futility of our efforts there at last came home to Americans, and with it a sense of disillusionment that found, expression in a dangerous neo-isolationism which, ironically, served to fortify the case for Safeguard. We were through being the world’s policeman, it was said in many quarters. We had not the resources to support such a costly role, and besides that, the affairs of other nations were none of our business. Since we cannot afford to do everything everywhere, better to concentrate on a strong defense at home and trust that our Communist enemies will have enough troubles on their own account to keep them from making trouble for us.
Thus the danger that in a flight from responsibility induced by the results of our calamitous mishandling of the situation in Vietnam we may retreat toward a Fortress America outlook and posture, committing the same, old errors along the way.
"That’s why we are preparing for a long war,” said Ho Chi Minh to an American newspaper correspondent in 1966. "How many years would you say? Ten, twenty—what do you think about twenty?”
Ho had already been fighting for 20 years. But scarcely three years had passed before American weariness with the war had reached dimensions that clearly indicated a crisis of confidence in the policies we had pursued in Southeast Asia for a decade and a half. Although sharply divided on what might be termed the rules of disengagement, voters and citizens all over the nation, in such numbers as to be decisive, had become fed up with Vietnam and wanted out.
At the root of the discontent lay a flaw in our strategy best summed up in Lyndon Johnson’s own words: "We seek no wider war.” Bewitched by the doctrine of Gradualism, we foreswore the principles of Mass, Surprise, and the Offensive. Each halting step we made was followed by a pause which allowed our enemies the time and opportunity to match our latest increment in strength. Time and again we disavowed our intention to carry the ground war into North Vietnam. We assiduously refrained from closing the harbor of Haiphong, knowing that through this gateway flowed 90 per cent of the material support of the North Vietnamese Forces and their Viet Cong allies in the South. Since 2 April 1968, not a bomb has fallen north of the 20th parallel, and since 1 November of that year, no bomb has fallen on any part of North Vietnam. But during this period hundreds of thousands of tons have been dumped on the scarred countryside of our hapless ally in the South.
Having thus imposed these limitations upon the territorial and political objectives of our operations, we were reduced to fighting a war of attrition, on the territory of our ally, in the hope that the North Vietnamese would eventually conclude that the cost of their venture to subjugate the South was more than the objective was worth. It was an incredibly naive plan, foredoomed to failure at its outset, for what it came down to was a waiting game which saw a nation short on patience and long on compassion trading human lives with a nation of infinite patience whose government possessed no compassion at all. It did not matter that the exchange rate ran ten to one in our favor; under these playing rules we were clearly overmatched.
Indeed, the North Vietnamese could hardly have asked for better terms, and the Soviet Union must have regarded the whole venture as the greatest bargain of the century. For the ruble equivalent of two billion dollars a year in aid to its Communist protégés, the Soviets were able to finance operations that killed and maimed thousands of U. S. soldiers, consumed billions of dollars of supplies and equipment, wracked the U. S. economy and weakened the dollar, divided America from her allies and introduced a deadly malaise into the American body politic.
Thus, what began as a failure in leadership grew to become a failure of national purpose and will- Sensible people, deeply concerned with what this forfeiture of our objectives in Vietnam may mean for the future, nevertheless are filled with revulsion at the prospect of continuing the pointless and futile sacrifice of American lives. Meanwhile, the doves, who time and again have assured us that the war could be ended to everyone’s satisfaction if we would only stop being beastly to the North Vietnamese, press for ever more rapid troop withdrawals from the area and new concessions at the conference table. The effect of all this is to foreclose any action which increases the cost or the risk of our operations in Vietnam. As a receiver in bankruptcy, Richard Nixon cannot hope to rescue the American position in Vietnam with any bold new initiatives. He can only conserve and liquidate under the best terms he can obtain.
Accordingly, all the great expectations we entertained in the past of ejecting the North Vietnamese and pacifying the South have necessarily been exchanged for the mixed bag of assorted programs identified by the blanket term “Vietnamization”. This presumes a great deal of faith that the South Vietnamese armed forces, once they have been adequately trained and equipped, will be able to do in the future what they have been Unable to do in the past with the help of half a trillion Americans. Nevertheless, there appears to be no alternative presently available which is not worse, and full faith and credit must be accorded the Vietnamization policy as long as it proves viable.
The introduction of U. S. armed forces into an area, and their subsequent withdrawal before the issue that brought them there has been resolved is, to say the least, a new interpretation of the force and effect of American commitments abroad which undergird the collective security arrangements we have with 40 other nations around the world. In view of the frustrations and disillusionment of the Vietnam experience, it is highly unlikely that the United States can at any time in the foreseeable future be induced to again commit large land forces to operations on the mainland of Asia, or, for that matter, on the insular extensions of that continent as well.
Yet the obligations remain—solemn, formal obligations, spelled out in treaty documents duly approved by the Senate and ratified by the President: “'lateral treaties of mutual assistance with the Republic of Korea, 1951; the Republic of the Philippines, 1951; the Republic of China, 1954; with Japan, 1960. In addition, both the Philippines and Thailand are participating members of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. The sense of all these agreements is that if the Asian partners are attacked the United States will, in accordance with its institutional processes, come to the aid of the partner requesting assistance.
In view of these commitments, a complete withdrawal of American forces from Eastern Asia is unthinkable. We simply cannot do it and have our pronouncements retain any vestige of credibility with either our friends or our enemies. In the nature of the situation it devolves upon the sea services to provide the principal instruments for a continuing U. S. presence in East Asia. It is a role they are well qualified to fill. The Seventh Fleet has been on duty in the Western Pacific since 1943. From Hokkaido to Queensland it has discharged the historic responsibilities of a major naval force, controlling the seas in war and ensuring their freedom in peace. To our treaty partners on the Asian mainland it guarantees continued access to sources of help from overseas; to the insular nations it is a line of defense protecting them from invasion; to all it is the visible, tangible proof that the United States maintains a deep and abiding interest in their independence and in the stability of the region.
Thus, the emphasis and character of the U. S. military presence in Southeast Asia will shift from the land to the sea. The costly, vulnerable air bases on land, so often the targets of the raids and rockets of the Viet Cong, eventually will be replaced by the mobile air bases of the Seventh Fleet, available wherever they may be needed on notice of a day or two. The massive ground forces will go as well, their mission assumed by the indigenous forces of the nations involved. Small, highly specialized Marine Corps striking forces will be available to supplement the work of these indigenous ground forces; they will in no sense be used to seize, hold, and occupy extensive land areas for any length of time. Theirs is the role of the raider—to strike hard and swiftly, then retire; to destroy and disrupt, and disappear; to secure lodgements in strategic areas to be turned over to occupying troops as quickly as the latter can assume control.
This reorientation of our military posture in Asia from a land to a sea base requires extensive and continuing military assistance to our allies on the mainland who are exposed to the direct assault of their Communist enemies. The security of any piece of ground demands the presence of ground troops in sufficient numbers and capabilities to defend and control it. The training and equipping of the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) is the core of the Vietnamization program. The same service must be offered to Thailand if it so desires. And while the Republic of Korea (ROK) army is as efficient and well trained as any in Asia, there are serious deficiencies in the quality and quantity of the equipment and supplies it has available. Given the chance to build first class ground forces, backstopped by the sea, air, and amphibious capabilities of the Seventh Fleet, the free nations of East Asia have at least a fighting chance to maintain their independence despite the formidable challenge from their Communist neighbors.
The relative quietude that descended upon U. S.- Soviet relations after the Cuban confrontation in late 1962 has been a welcome respite from the parlous years of strategic instability when each nation was in the process of changing from the long-range aircraft to the ICBM as its principal strike vehicle.
For our own side, the dominant feature of the détente has been the contribution made by the Polaris system to the stability of the nuclear balance of terror. By July of 1964, the number of operational SSBNs had risen to 21, and the programmed fleet of 41 was in service by early 1967. Invulnerable to destruction by preemptive attack, more than 400 Polaris missiles continuously on station guarantee our ability to mount a devastating response to any nuclear assault by an enemy. This assured capacity for inflicting damage of an unacceptable order upon the originator of a nuclear attack furnished the basis for a workable deterrent. Although our land-based missile force proliferated to reach a total of 1,000 Minutemen and 54 Titan II, its contribution to the assured destruction capability we already possessed was marginal, since all the significant targets of a second strike which might be directed against the Soviet Union could be destroyed by the Polaris Force.
Combined with 450 B-52S and 78 B-58S, the land-based missile force represented an enormous destructive capability which, since it duplicated the function of the Polaris fleet, must have appeared to the rest of the world as a sinister anomaly in the American order of battle. Thousands of pages of testimony before Congress, and thousands of speeches and official pronouncements on the subject have all taken as their premise that the United States would never strike the first blow of an atomic exchange, and that its strategic forces were ipso facto second strike forces only. Yet a thousand missiles and 500 aircraft, superfluous to the requirement for an assured destruction capability and themselves vulnerable to attack, must have looked distressingly like a first strike force to those not used to taking American professions at their face value.
The explanation, of course, is rather simple and straightforward. At the time the United States undertook to build its strategic missile force in the late 1950s no one could have foreseen the incredible success of the Polaris system. The greatest urgency was placed upon getting an ICBM into operation at the earliest possible moment, and the technical circumstances at the time dictated that both land-oriented and sea-oriented approaches be tried. Once under way, the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman programs all acquired a momentum of their own, as large defense programs always do, and even though Polaris had proved its capabilities as early as 1961, A was by then impossible to foreshorten the land-based programs, which proceeded to their completion.
Just how much effect, if any, the existence of this overwhelming strike force had upon the Soviet decision to expand its own missile forces may never be known on this side of the Iron Curtain. The fact is, however, that beginning about 1965, or in a period roughly corresponding with the departure of Khrushchev, the Soviet Union began a rapid buildup of its own land-based intercontinental missile inventory to levels which currently exceed our own, and which is continuing. At the end of 1964, the Soviet ICBM force was estimated to be about 200. B) October of 1966, it had reached 340, and it more than doubled the following year, rising to 720. By mid-1969, the number stood at 1,050, almost matching the total number of Minutemen and Titan IIs, with indications that the total of the Russian missiles would reach 1,150 by the end of the year. There is no clue as to how much larger it is programmed to become. At the same time, the Soviet Union is credited with a nuclear-powered ballistic missile fleet of some 25 submarines carrying more than 200 missiles, and with construction proceeding at the rate of seven boats per year. During roughly the same period, the Galosh anti-ballistic missile system was deployed around Moscow and a newer system, Tallinn, thought to be operative against air-breathing vehicles rather than ballistic missiles, has been installed in a few other places. In addition, a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS), which has a relatively low trajectory and an indefinite range, has been developed and tested. Inasmuch as the U. S. warning net looks northward, FOBS missiles launched across the South Pole could strike undetected at soft targets such as airfields, communication facilities, and the acquisition and fire control networks of our own defense forces.
Quite apart from the Soviet missile buildup is more sensational news from China, where a nation a hundred years behind the Western World in industrial development has managed to produce hydrogen bombs and is well on its way to acquiring an ICBM system to deliver them. The operational date of an effective delivery force is put at some time between now and 1975.
These developments have precipitated a debate in the United States which has proceeded with rising asperity to culminate in a razor-edged decision to build a "thin" anti-ballistic missile defensive system, oriented against the Chinese threat, at an estimated initial cost of six to seven billion dollars. Significantly, the initial increments of the system are being located to protect our land-based offensive missiles rather than our population centers. In the bizarre calculus of military planners, this deployment is supposed to have a better look about it than one specifically oriented to population defense, the rationale being that our offensive missiles need protection only if they are dedicated exclusively to a second—or retaliatory—strike. An ABM force protecting population, on the other hand, would be required to defend against Chinese missiles that we were unable to destroy in our own first strike against China. This logic may or may not be convincing to the Chinese; the real point is that since the offensive land-based missiles are superfluous to our second strike needs, so are the missiles deployed for their defense.
To his credit, however, it must be said of Robert McNamara that he came reluctantly to his decision to recommend construction of the Chinese-oriented ABM, and the fact that he did so at all after years of resisting the arguments of the system's proponents suggests how strong the pressures to build it had become The settlement for the "thin" Sentinel system, renamed Safeguard by the Nixon Administration, represented a compromise with those who wanted a "thick" system which might be useful against a Soviet attack. As is often the case with compromises this one had some schizoid characteristics: We expect our offensive missiles to deter attack by the Soviet Union, whose missile strength matches our own, but we apparently do not expect it to deter the Chinese, who have yet to produce their first operational intercontinental weapon. We therefore must hasten to deploy an antimissile defense, not against our strong opponent, but against the weak one.
Presumably, the decision for a Chinese-oriented system reflects a sober concern on the part of our own officials that the Chinese government will prove to be less rational than that of the Soviet Union, and therefore less responsive to our threat of retaliation. But there is nothing in the recent behavior of the Chinese government, as distinguished from the rhetoric of some of its officials, that would suggest that the Chinese are any less prudent in this regard than are the Russians. In these circumstances, it becomes difficult to see just what is being accomplished by the Safeguard system that would justify such a large commitment of effort by its sponsors.
Unless, of course, what we presently see turns out to be simply a down payment on a vastly more comprehensive system designed to furnish both area and point defense to the entire country.
If this is indeed the meaning of Safeguard, then we ought to look carefully at the costs and consequences, not of the tip of the iceberg, but of the entire mass, and do so in the context of our true national needs and interests.
At the root of McNamara’s misgivings about anti-ballistic missile defense lay the conviction that it could purchase no advantage for us that could not be nullified by the opposing side, and that the reverse was equally true. Mission accomplishment in these terms is a straight function of numbers of weapons, and there is no defense, however elaborate and costly, that cannot be saturated and overwhelmed by greater numbers of offensive missiles than it was designed to deal with. Any attempt by either side to improve its odds by defense, either of its offensive capability or its population, would simply prompt its opponent to make an offsetting investment in additional striking power. The end result of this game of hands up on a broom handle will be to leave both antagonists in the same relative power position toward each other, but at immensely greater cost. The name of the game is Sufficiency, not Superiority, as President Nixon wisely observed. Already we and the Russians are scorpions in a bottle, able to sting each other only at the price of death to ourselves. By McNamara’s calculations we shall have the capability to slay one hundred million Russians even after sustaining a first strike, and the Soviet capability is not different from our own. And each has the power to keep the balance on approximately the same terms. This is the meaning of deterrence. It is the essence of detente.
The valid criticism of such attempts to defend our population and our land-based missile systems is therefore not that they are provocative and dangerous, as some maintain, but simply that they are costly and fruitless, and in the end, self defeating. The futile race between offensive and defensive missiles has a forlorn precedent in the staged buildup of American strength in Vietnam, each increment hailed as the solution to the impasse, only to be vitiated by a proportionate increase in enemy strength.
Moreover, by locating defensive missiles in the territory we are trying to make secure and in which we must live, we shall only compound the error we began ten years ago when we deployed the first Atlas wing in Wyoming, and which we have perpetuated through Titan and Minuteman. We shall succeed only in multiplying the weight of any attack made upon us, for not only must an enemy destroy our offensive missiles, he must as a precondition subdue our defense as well. Even if a "successful” defense could be postulated, the results would be horrendous. The detonation of thousands of nuclear warheads in the skies above the United States would leave millions of Americans blinded and burned and utterly unstrung. The Japanese have yet to recover from the shock of two such explosions. From the jungle and plain of South Vietnam the ashes of a thousand blasted villages cry out against a strategy that makes a battleground out of the prize over which the war is being fought when other sites for the contest are available.
And other sites are available, almost limitless in number, and free of costs and restrictions. Around the periphery of Eurasia, in the Arctic, Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic sectors of the world ocean, the submerged Polaris fleet of the Navy stands watch over the security of the United States. No effective countermeasure has been raised against it, and none is remotely in prospect. Five decades of intensive research in detection, classification, and destruction concepts and techniques have produced a good capability to reduce a submarine force over an extended period of time through a massive effort where the mission of the submarines requires them to seek contact with the enemy, as in their traditional operations against shipping. No progress at all has been made in the detection and simultaneous destruction of a world-wide fleet of submarines whose mission demands that they avoid contact with enemy forces, as in the quiet station-keeping of a Polaris boat. Yet no less a capability is required to defeat the ballistic missile submarine fleet and destroy its effectiveness as a secure and ample strike force.
Let us be clear about it. The proposal here is to move our strategic nuclear striking force to sea. Let us put all of it to sea. We should have a clear vision of a day when the costly, vulnerable silos now occupied by Titan and Minuteman missiles hold grain instead; when aircraft no longer rise from bases in the United States carrying nuclear bombs; when throughout the length and breadth of the nation no offensive nuclear weapons system remains to tempt the counterbattery fire of a jittery enemy. There should be no need for follow-on aircraft or missiles to supplant those now deployed. An orderly phase-out of the existing units can be planned and included as an agenda item for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. It may well be that our land-based missile systems have yet to make their real contribution to national security as the currency of negotiations to secure reductions in the land-base offensive missile strength of the Soviet Union. As the Soviet ballistic missile fleet continues to grow, providing its own invulnerable second-strike capability, the Soviet delegates may be inclined to see the utility of an agreement placing both homelands off limits to offensive strategic weapons systems. No increase in numbers of our own 41 SSBNs should be immediately necessary, whether or not such an agreement is reached. The 496 Poseidon missiles currently programmed will vastly increase the destructive capability of the fleet and, together with the 160 improved Polaris missiles, will be adequate to provide the assured destruction capable we require for the next several years.
"Ah, yes,” said Grandpapa, "But what if Peter hadn’t caught the wolf. What then?'
All across the Northern Hemisphere some three thousand nuclear missiles, continually oriented to their targets by computers, are maintained in 15-minute readiness, tended day and night by human beings with some capacity for error or irrationality. Rigid discipline, rigorous training, careful selection, and unequivocal doctrine—plus an undetermined amount of dumb luck—have so far prevented any accidental or unauthorized launchings. These contingencies lie outside the capabilities of détente, and the potential for their occurrence increases with the number of missiles in service, and in particular, With the number of countries possessing nuclear capabilities. Prudence therefore demands a modest but reliable defense against the peril of the unregulated launch.
It is in this context that the Seaborne Anti-Ballistic Missile Intercept System (SABMIS) can fulfill a vital mission. The great advantage of SABMIS ls the extended protection that mobile seaborne units can provide. The nuclear burst required for the destruction of an enemy missile would take place over the empty ocean, hundreds or thousands of miles from the United States, avoiding the concentration of nuclear fire over the civil population. Beyond this patent advantage, the reach and mobility of SABMIS bestows another dividend of great significance: namely, the ability to detect and destroy an enemy missile in the early phase of its flight, while it is still one missile and not two dozen undifferentiated penetration aids, decoys, and armed re-entry vehicles. This capability alone drastically reduces the number of defense missiles that would have to be programmed to defend against an errant MIRV if the defense had to be mounted from U. S. territory.
There are limitations, of course. SABMIS deployed in the Norwegian Sea is useless against the behavior of a berserk group of conspirators on board a Soviet SSBN in the Davis Strait. So there is a place for Safeguard, after all. But in this instance it must be deployed to afford protection to populations, not missiles; and if no offensive missiles exist to require protection, it can be. Inasmuch as its mission would complement that of SABMIS, there would be no requirement for expansion of Safeguard beyond the order of magnitude now authorized by the Congress.
Thus, by making use of what the sea offers us, we can provide security for our country against the nuclear missiles of other nations at a tolerable cost and risk. We can still honor our treaty-bound obligations to give assistance to free nations on the Asian mainland and the off-lying islands who request our help. And we can be very effective in stabilizing the wobbly world East of Suez now being cast loose by the departing British. We can do all these things, and do them well, provided that the American people and those in whom it has placed its decision-making authority can be brought to recognize their Navy’s future potential and its present limitations.
This will take a great deal of doing, and it probably cannot be done in the present climate of cutback and retrenchment and antipathy toward all things military. But, if we profess to believe in the efficacy of representative government, we must believe that sooner or later both the public and the civilian authority will recover their perspective and can be persuaded to support a valid case for the things that must be done for the Navy to continue as an effective instrument of national policy—a policy which we may trust will distinguish between wisdom and foolishness with better success in the future than it has in the past.
Glacial Red Herring
During one of the Deepfreeze operations in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, I hitched a ride in a U. S. Navy helicopter to a dry valley which is an old glacier bed. Due to some unexplained thermal activity, it is ice-free and snow-free the year round, and covered with bare boulders.
One of the passengers was carrying a small bag. On landing, he stepped out, carefully opened and tipped out a small pile of stones. His muttered explanation of this peculiar action was, "There, that'll fool those nutty geologists. These rocks come from Texas!"
—Contributed by Lieutenant Commander A. C. Coutts, Royal New Zealand Navy
(The U. S. Naval Institute will pay $10.00 for each anecdote published in the PROCEEDINGS.)