This html article is produced from an uncorrected text file through optical character recognition. Prior to 1940 articles all text has been corrected, but from 1940 to the present most still remain uncorrected. Artifacts of the scans are misspellings, out-of-context footnotes and sidebars, and other inconsistencies. Adjacent to each text file is a PDF of the article, which accurately and fully conveys the content as it appeared in the issue. The uncorrected text files have been included to enhance the searchability of our content, on our site and in search engines, for our membership, the research community and media organizations. We are working now to provide clean text files for the entire collection.
Maybe we ought to call it our “backward strategythe proposal to keep our most visible power projection force steaming out of harm’s way. But considering that engaging carriers in a forward strategy may promote escalation, we may do better to safeguard the aircraft carriers during the initial outbreak °f hostilities and employ them as strategic reserve forces.
War has been mankind’s constant companion.
Some have been limited in intensity and aims; others have extended to total destruction of one °f the combatants. But whether limited or total war, the n'eans of warfare available have been constrained only by lhe technology of the time, not by any considerations of Policy. The notion that weapons could exist but deliberately not be used would have been incomprehensible to m°st of the military leaders of history. Escalation, if it had any meaning at all, simply meant doing more of the same 0r doing it over a wider area.
The invention of nuclear weapons and of means for aeir delivery over great distances changed the nature of 'Var- Within a generation, escalation and escalation con- tr°l became central components of strategy. The wide- sPfead belief that “total” war would result in total deduction for victor as well as vanquished meant that future Wars involving the nuclear powers must be limited both in a,rtis and in means. War aims could no longer extend to °Wrthrowing a given government or destroying a given s°ciety when that government or society could destroy the v>ctor in the moment of his victory.
The notion of limited war aims has become ingrained in Wtilitary and naval leaders’ thought processes. No serious
student of military affairs, for example, contemplates strategies to forcibly overthrow the Soviet Government or occupy Moscow. War between nonnuclear powers or between a nuclear power and a nonnuclear one may still be total, as was the case between North and South Vietnam. But between superpowers, the need to control escalation in order to survive makes all future wars either limited or suicidal. This need for escalation control imposes two new requirements on military strategy:
► The strategy should not lead to unwanted escalation.
► The strategy should not fail catastrophically should escalation occur.
These two principles join a long list of criteria— decisiveness, risk, economy of force, etc.—against which a particular strategy must be evaluated.
Evaluating strategies against these two escalation control criteria is hampered by three factors. The first is the lack of a simple, widely accepted understanding of various escalation stages. Conflict between two superpowers can range from the generally nonviolent form we call peace to an apocalyptic, full-scale exchange of both sides’ total strategic arsenals. Many intervening steps are possible. One set of such steps might include:
► Peaceful competition -
► Tension and crisis
► Localized incidents involving surrogates or clients
► War between one superpower and a client of the other
► Direct conventional war between the superpowers
► Use of nuclear weapons outside the two homelands
► Limited nuclear strikes into one another’s homeland
► General nuclear exchange
No two individuals would agree on this precise set of steps—even less on how to measure the demarcation between them. Actually, they are not steps at all, but rather arbitrarily selected points on a rising continuum of violence. There are, however, two distinct escalation boundaries: the outbreak of hostilities and the first use of nuclear weapons. Either represents a qualitative change in the na-
ture of a conflict, a clear instance of escalation. These boundaries are, therefore, appropriate ones at which to evaluate existing strategies against the escalation criteria.
A second factor hampering the evaluation of strategies is the possibility that the first escalation criterion—no unwanted escalation—is irrelevant to naval forces, or perhaps to U. S. forces. Can escalation be controlled in a war with the Soviet Union? Many would argue that it cannot. They espouse one or more of the following arguments:
► The Soviets will not enter a war unless they plan to use nuclear weapons. The question for the Soviets is not if the war becomes nuclear, but when. Escalation is inevitable, and the prime purpose of the conventional phase is to plan for the nuclear battle. The distinguished French strategist General Pierre Gallois even suggests the war will begin with a Soviet “. . . attack with highly accurate low-yield nuclear weapons against all the military targets in Western Europe.” (John Train, “The Soviet Wedge in Geneva,” Wall Street Journal, 28 September 1983, p. 74.)
► Even if the Soviets honor their pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons, escalation is still inevitable. The conventional force imbalance in Europe will force the United States to escalate. In the September 1983 Armed Forces Journal, General Bernard Rogers, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, said that if NATO is attacked, “. . .we can only sustain ourselves conventionally for a relatively short time. I will then be forced to . . . ask for the authorization ... to use nuclear weapons.”
► Even if neither the United States nor the Soviet Union escalates, escalation still cannot be controlled. Other nuclear powers, the United Kingdom and, especially, France, reserve the right to make their own nuclear decisions based on their assessment. Given Soviet tendencies to view the West as a single entity and Soviet emphasis on mass and preemption, small-scale French or British use will lead to large-scale Soviet response and, in turn, to U. S. retaliation. Thus the French and British not only have the ability to make their own nuclear decision, but also have de facto decision-making power over the two superpowers as well.
The final factor complicating the analysis is the doubt that once the nuclear threshold has been crossed, further escalation control is meaningful. The second escalation criterion—strategies should not fail catastrophically should escalation occur—is meaningless if escalation to general nuclear exchange is the inevitable result of any nuclear employment. It is difficult to predict the course of a war once nuclear weapons have been used. The destructiveness of a theater-level exchange may force both sides to reconsider their war aims and seek an end to hostilities. On the other hand, escalation to a massive, homeland-to- homeland strategic exchange is also possible. After all. one purpose of U. S. theater nuclear weapons is to link NATO’s conventional defense and the strategic arsenal of the United States.
These complicating factors are inherent to the nuclear age. The uncertainty over whether escalation will occur, and whether it can be controlled if it does, is an important
component of deterrence. The United States rejects a Pledge of “no first use” of nuclear weapons because this Uncertainty helps keep a conventionally more powerful Soviet Union in check. Such uncertainty may appear to Hake examination of the naval contribution to escalation control trivial or irrelevant. Such an attitude is understandable and common. It is also wrong.
Although we cannot guarantee that escalation will not °ccur for reasons unrelated to the Navy, neither can we be certain that it will. Soviet leaders who have spent their lives speaking and hearing of the immense dangers of nuclear war will not make the nuclear decision lightly, no Matter what their peacetime doctrine may suggest. The rapid collapse of NATO, forcing a U. S. nuclear decision, a*so may not come to pass; history is replete with “short ^ar” predictions that proved to be wrong.
Even if nuclear weapons are used, further escalation need not be automatic. Despite their civil defenses and iheir growing ability to threaten U. S. intercontinental ballistic missiles, Soviet leaders must realize that a retaliatory strike by the United States would effectively destroy their country. That the United States will suffer similar or peater destruction will be of little consolation. Thus, as long as NATO’s war aims do not extend to the political Instruction of the Soviet Union, Soviet leaders are un- 'kely to take those steps that could lead to its physical destruction.
In this confusing world of escalation control, nothing is assured; thus, nothing, including the impact of naval °rces, can be ignored. Since it cannot be certain that es-
The decision to go nuclear is not only a U. S. or Soviet prerogative. Britain and France—with such nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines as HMS Resolution, opposite page, and Le Redoutable, left—have de facto nuclear war-making power over both superpowers.
calation considerations are irrelevant, and since, if they are relevant, ignoring them could lead to disaster, U. S. naval strategy must be evaluated against the two escalation criteria.
In the strict sense, there can be no such thing as a maritime or naval strategy in today’s world, any more than can there be separate land strategies or nuclear strategies. The emergence of air power and joint operations in World War II doomed separate land and sea strategies; the concept of escalation control has doomed separate conventional and nuclear ones. Still, it is useful to examine the components of national strategy separately. This article focuses on the naval component.
Modem naval strategy is not manifested neatly in a single document. It exists in war plans and exercises and is articulated in the speeches of naval leaders and the discussions and deliberations of their staffs. Yet, the outlines of U. S. maritime strategy for a war with the Soviet Union are well known. Our strategy is a strategy of global, conventional war, fought in concert with both our Atlantic and our Pacific allies. It is a forward strategy, seeking to keep the battle in the opponent’s backyard. It is an offensive strategy, seeking out the enemy rather than waiting for him to seek us out. And it is a strategy dominated by the aircraft carrier.
Although there are main offensive arms of the Navy— carrier battle groups, attack submarines, and amphibious forces our strategic discussions revolve around the carriers. The carriers are sent to provide peacetime signals of U. S. concern, a modem form of traditional gunboat diplomacy. The carriers support forces ashore in limited war. And, should general war come, the carriers are expected to attack and destroy the Soviet Navy, including, when required, Soviet Naval Aviation at bases within the Soviet Union.
In a crisis not directly involving the Soviet Union, U. S. plans are clear. Aircraft carriers will be sent to the scene of the crisis, ideally to demonstrate concern and resolve, but implicitly to apply force if needed. Since no ground forces are involved and carriers at sea are relatively invulnerable, such crisis deployments do not induce escalation. The United States may choose to escalate as a matter of policy; U. S. principle only requires that a given strategy not lead to undesired escalation.
Should escalation to actual hostilities occur, the strategy of using carriers as the primary means of displaying U. S. power will not fail catastrophically. The presence of a carrier battle group allows the United States to conduct combat operations, but does not oblige it to do so. Because sea-based forces are inherently mobile, they can withdraw; because they are highly survivable against Third World threats, this withdrawal is a matter of choice, not necessity. Thus, if the strategy fails, it will not do so
catastrophically. Both escalation control requirements are met.
Contrast this strategy with one employing amphibious forces, the other applicable offensive force. Should this strategy fail, the failure is more likely to be catastrophic since either withdrawal or high combat losses will be viewed as a humiliating U. S. defeat.
Current naval strategy is thus consistent with the dictates of escalation control at the low end of the spectrum of violence—possible hostilities during conventional crisis with third powers. Obviously, the extent to which escalation control principles are followed at the high end of the scale in a war with the Soviet Union is far more important.
In considering higher order escalation, one must vie''' U. S. aircraft carriers through Soviet eyes. U. S. Nav> officers speaking of carrier battle groups might stress fleX' ibility, mobility, or endurance. But the Soviets stress the carrier’s nuclear capability. In his book Sea Power oj lju State, Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, Commander in Chief 0 the Soviet Navy, speaks of the carriers’ . . intensive training to deliver nuclear weapons on land targets,” re ferring to them as a “. . . highly-trained reserve of strate gic strike forces in a global nuclear war.” With this imaS1- of aircraft carriers and the apparent Soviet assumption tha the West will be forced to use nuclear weapons first if NATO-Warsaw Pact war, carriers approaching with111 strike range of the Soviet Union may be perceived as pre^ paring to launch nuclear strikes. The Soviets, who streS- preemption, may elect to beat us to the draw. Thus, f° ^ ward operation of carrier battle groups seems inconsiste with the first criterion of not inducing escalation. .
Forward operations are inconsistent with the second c terion as well. Should escalation occur, the strategy 'v_ indeed fail catastrophically. U. S. carriers will be exce"
tionally vulnerable, subject to attack from multiple azimuths where anything less than a leak-proof defense results in failure. The situation is exacerbated today because many important programmed improvements in fleet air defense are still in the future.
Although a strategy based on forward operations of carrier battle groups violates both escalation control criteria, this does not necessarily imply that such a strategy should never be implemented. War is a matter of risk. No strategy is perfect. None will ever have all the characteristics we might desire. But in light of escalation control considerations, a forward strategy should be followed only if the benefits clearly outweigh the risks or if there is no other alternative.
This does not suggest that the aircraft carrier should be eliminated. If the carrier did not exist, she would have to be invented. The question is how the carrier’s flexibility and capability should be employed in a war with the Soviet Union. Some possibilities are obvious. Should Cuba opt for belligerency, carrier assets would be needed to neutralize the Cuban military. Carrier operations in the Mediterranean Sea directly threaten the Soviet Union far less than operations in northern seas and thus are less likely to contribute to escalation. Should escalation occur, carriers are at least as survivable in the Mediterranean as anywhere else, given the prospect of mutual support from the shore and the limited strength of Soviet Mediterranean forces compared to those in the Norwegian Sea or Northern Pacific. Finally, although the Indian Ocean will probably not be a decisive theater of war, a battle group happen- 'ng to be present at the onset of hostilities could eliminate whatever Soviet maritime threat existed in the area.
Beyond these uses, however, the principal mission of carriers in the early stages of a major war is survival. They form an irreplaceable strategic reserve, whether the war remains conventional or escalates. An extended conven- honal war will lead to rapid and severe attrition of tactical air power in Europe, thus the limited attack capability of the carriers (limited in relation to the total air power initially available in theater) will become decisive. Should escalation occur, in-theater nuclear assets will be destroyed. The carrier may again prove decisive, both because of her nuclear delivery capability and because that capability, residing in manned aircraft, can be effective against movable or emerging targets. But, in either case, the carrier can perform her decisive role later in the war °nly if she has not been squandered earlier.
The notion of using the Navy’s most visible force as a strategic reserve, whose initial function is to remain out of harm’s way, is foreign to the aggressive attitude of successful naval commanders. In addition, gaining congressional support for complex and capable ships that will be employed in a reserve role will be difficult. These drawbacks, however, argue for deeper study and better articulation of the concept, not its rejection.
Despite the value of employing carriers as a strategic reserve, operation of carrier battle groups in close proxim- uy to the Soviet homeland may indeed prove essential early in the war. Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, for example, has noted in the November 1983 Armed Forces
Journal that . . the law of the land . . . includes as binding law Article V of the NATO Treaty, which requires . . . [the United States] to treat an attack on Norway as if it's an attack on Long Island . . . If there is sufficient strategic warning to put Marine reinforcements in place before hostilities and if sufficient land-based air power can be allocated to Norway, this obligation need not involve carriers. If not, battle group operations will be necessary to defend northern Norway, thus risking escalation. Therefore, to ensure the second escalation criterion— strategy should not fail catastrophically—is met, the ability of carrier battle groups to survive, operate, and fight in a nuclear environment must be improved.
Improved training, tactics, survivability, hardening, and capabilities against nuclear-armed cruise missiles provided by nuclear SM-2 surface-to-air missiles are essential. (Survivability refers to protection from multiple kills, from destruction by near misses, and from the long-range effects of some nuclear weapons; it does not imply a futile attempt to make ships impervious to direct nuclear hits.) All these programs are more or less ongoing; they should be supported and, where possible, accelerated. Since hardening improvements will be slow in coming, the Navy should consider grouping those ships that have had survivability improvements into nuclear-capable battle groups. Initially, it may prove wise to have all such battle groups positioned in the Atlantic Ocean where there is the least choice about forward operations.
The U. S. Navy’s declaratory policy need not avoid a proclaimed willingness to operate in Soviet waters. It is both wrong and dangerous to give the Soviets the impression that we will cede any area of the world to them by default. The danger, however, is that the U. S. Navy will become a victim of its own rhetoric. Since naval leaders are uncomfortable with the concepts of escalation and of nuclear war, they may find themselves accepting a high probability of escalation, not as a conscious, calculated risk, but because they have failed to think through the problem. Although they may—and should—declare in public that “the Navy will go anywhere to do its job,” in professional deliberations they must add “so long as a careful calculation of the military benefits and the risks, including the risk of escalation, shows the decision to be a wise one.”
Nuclear weapons present difficult questions of escalation control, questions for which no answers are fully satisfactory. They seem to confer benefits on our adversary and none on us. Yet, nuclear weapons must be considered and be a part of U. S. planning. The challenge of devising a credible strategy that will uphold the two escalation criteria is immense. The consequences of not doing so, however, are simply too great.
Captain Brooks has spent the bulk of his career in billets associated with the submarine force. Ashore, he has served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations. His writings have previously been published in Proceedings and the Naval War College Review. Captain Brooks is currently Deputy Director, Strategic and Theater Nuclear Warfare Division, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.