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ON NOT CONFUSING OURSELVES: Lessons from an Important Book

The recent appearance of a collection of essays in honor of two very notable American commentators on 20th century U.S. national security offers a rare opportunity to look back on the building of an intellectual basis for the superpower age just past More importantly perhaps, it encourages reflection on the meaning of that work for the new world order with which the United States now has to contend. It is therefore with a view to the future, rather than the past, that a familiarization with the background and history of deterrence theory, as developed over nearly half a century, can be recommended. It is to be hoped that work such as described and commented upon here will promote the thought, analyses and exposition needed to help guide us into the next century.


Essays on National Security Strategy
in Honor of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter
by Andrew W. Marshall, J. J. Martin and Henry S. Rowen
(Editors) Boulder, Colorado
Westview Press, 1991. 331pp. $49.95

This book is a festschrift, that is, a collection of essays by colleagues and friends of the Wohlstetters to celebrate their 75th birthdays. It’s a nice idea, and, as it turns out, a really excellent book. Even if your first question is “Who are Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter?” you probably will enjoy the book and Jearn something from it.

Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter are two remarkable Americans, a fact supported, among many other things, by the Medal of Freedom awarded to them by President Reagan in November, 1985. Roberta is perhaps best known for her 1962 book Pearl Harbor. Warning and Decision, which was in fact a declassified version of a 1957 RAND study. The study was prompted not by a desire to sort out the old mythology about how President Roosevelt got us into World War ll, but by a more contemporary concern: How can the leadership of a nation correctly interpret the warning signals of an impending attack in order to form an appropriate decision on defensive measures? In the dawn of the nuclear age it was an exceedingly important question.

Albert Wohlstetter has been an influential commentator on strategic policy since the early 1950s. One of his earliest contributions was a study for the Air Force of Strategic Air Command bases, done while Wohlstetter was at RAND. The study found that basing done to get the force as close as possible to the anticipated targets created serious wlnerability to surprise attack. The study ultimately led to the withdrawal of SAC bombers from bases abroad, and to the airborne alert and failsafe concepts, all of which greatly improved the survivability of the force. Pursuing this line of inquiry Wohlstetter developed, in the late 1950s, a new concept of nuclear strategy: second strike deterrence. This notion, now, of course, very familiar, held that what really matters in deterring a nuclear adversary is not the forces in being, but what survives an enemy first strike. Many other contributions to the development of nuclear strategy have followed over the years. Professor Wohlstetter bas been preeminent not only in the creation of new concepts, but in the debunking of bad ideas. A book of essays on national security strategy, reflecting the historical development of concepts and contemporary concerns is certainly an appropriate tnbute to the Wohlstetters.

Readers will find that the essays in the book are generally quite readable – something not always the case with authors as illustrious as those gathered here. Perhaps we should not be surprised. They are all people who aspired to influence policy through the clarity and persuasiveness of their ideas.

The book begins with an essay by James Digby and James Martin on the Wohlstetters’ contributions to strategic thought, and another by James Digby on RAND in the 1950s. It must have been an exceedingly interesting time. The elements of nuclear strategy were being developed, including not only that dealing with strategic bombardment, but also tactical and theater use of nuclear weapons. The latter were necessary, it was thought, to counter overwhelming Soviet superiority in conventional forces in Europe.

In addition, an analytical technique called systems analysis was being developed. This brought mathematical methods of analysis to bear on military problems whose outcomes depended on political, economic and technological factors as well as purely military ones. The names that float through the narrative will be familiar to many readers. Besides the Wohlstetters there was Bernard Brodie, Herman Kahn, Thomas Schelling, Charles Hitch, Henry Rowen, Andrew Marshall, William Kaufmann and Alain Enthoven. And, as Digby points out, the flowering of ideas in the late 1950s was well timed for the advent of the Kennedy administration, and the tenure of Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense.

Secretary McNamara was open to new analytical methods and ideas on strategic policy. RAND and other think tanks like the Institute for Defense Analyses and the Center for Naval Analyses contributed ideas and people to the new administration. But even as the wave of the 50s was making itself felt in defense policy, new ideas were germinating to replace or modify the old ones. First, as Albert Wohlstetter took the lead in pointing out, were the deficiencies of an aU-or-nothing retaliatory posture for the strategic forces. What if the Soviets struck first, damaging our retaliatory forces but leaving most cities intact? Should the President’s only option be an all-out attack on their urban and industrial targets, knowing that their counterstrike would destroy our remaining cities? One answer to this dilemma is strategic defenses, about which more later. Another answer is to create flexible strategic options in order to retain escalation dominance. This demands well-designed systems, survivable command and control, and a carefully worked out doctrine of response. These themes are explored in the book in two excellent essays. The first one is U.S. Nuclear Strate2Y and Employment Policy by Henry Rowen and Richard Brody, and the second one is on strategic defense by Leon Sloss. Both essays do a good job of conveying a sense of the bind that policy-makers were in, and of explaining the logic of circumstances and policy development.

The arrival of Charles Hitch and Alain Enthoven in the Office of the Secretary of Defense led to the development of the Planning, Programming and Budgeting system, the creation of the Five Year Defense Program, and the adoption of systems analysis as the primary mode of illuminating decisions in defense matters. Meanwhile, back at RAND, people like Andrew Marshall and James Schlesinger were pointing out that systems analysis had some serious deficiencies. These involved the way measures of effectiveness were developed and used, and the status of non-quantifiable factors in the analyses. As one harsh critic put it, systems analysis trivialized the measures of effectiveness and enshrined the estimates of cost. Marshall and Schlesinger sought modes of analysis that would help explain, as systems analysis never could, why the battle was not always to the strong, nor the race to the swift. How do we account for the great upsets in military history? Can it be that the nonquantifiables such as morale, leadership, tactics and training play an important part?

Efforts to deal with such questions led eventually to the establishment of an office of net assessment on the National Security Council staff. This story and subsequent developments are described in the book in a chapter called Net Assessment: A Historical Review by George Pickett, I ames Roche and Barry Watts. There is also an excellent chapter on Net Assessment as an Analytical Concept by Stephen Rosen. Readers who have been nagged by a feeling that net assessment is not a welldefined concept will be relieved to discover that its originators and practitioners intended to avoid a simple, ftxed definition.

On the subject of strategic defenses, the main essay in the book is by Leon Sloss, and is entitled The Ambi&Uous Role of Strate~ic Defense in U.S. Strateu. It is an excellent survey of how we got where we are on the issue. Sloss sees four phases in the development of U.S. policy in this area. The first phase, 1945 to 1950, concentrated on air defense of CONUS. In the second phase it was recognized that the principal threat for the future would be from ballistic missiles, and so efforts were pointed at defense against them. This phase culminated in the 1969 ballistic missile debate in which the Senate, by one vote, agreed to deploy the Safeguard system. Phase three, 1969-1983, is the era of the ABM treaty, in which the U.S. and the USSR agreed on stringent limitations on ABM research, development and deployment. This era ended with President Reagan’s March 23, 1983 speech calling for a strategic defense initiative. Sloss concludes this historical discussion with a section in which he explores the reasons that in his view account for the bias against defenses in U.S. strategic thinking. One senses in this, and in a later chapter by Fred Hoffman, a certain sensitivity and possibly defensiveness on the subject of defenses.

The serious proponents of the SDI have had a terrible time in the years since 1983 because President Reagan’s vision was technically naive but politically powerful, whereas the proponents want something that is technically sensible but politically unsalable. Hoffman, in his essay entitled Deterrence. Stability and Reassurance, complains that: “The assumption about the inevitability of unconstrained use of nuclear weapons, largely unchallenged by either side in the debate over the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also channeled those arguments into a pointless dispute about whether essentially leakproof defenses were feasible or affordable.” Pointless, maybe, but it can be argued that it was the vision of a leakproof defense that made SDI possible in the U.S. and the possibility of it that helped set in train the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the USSR. Also, as Hoffman notes, conditions are quite different now. Before 1990 one had to be concerned that if we deployed defenses the Soviets would respond in ways that would not serve our objective of limiting damage if deterrence fails. After all, we responded to deployment of the first Moscow ABM system with the development first of MRVs (multiple reentry vehicles) and then MIRVs (multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles). Today, however, Soviet responses are of less concern. We may even be able to persuade them that defenses against third country attacks or accidental or unauthorized launches are in their interest. And, as Hoffman also points out, in a regime in which both the U.S. and the USSR (or its successors) reduce the size of their strategic nuclear forces drastically defenses will be needed as insurance against cheating. Furthermore, major powers that are not military powers, such as Germany and Japan, may in the future want increased control over their own security. It would be very desirable that this take the form of strategic defenses rather than an offensive capability.

An important theme in the book is the development of people to be strategists in the future. People like those mentioned earlier in this review do not come along every day. Andrew Marshall explores this topic in a chapter entitled Strate&,V as a Profession for Future Generations. He notes “It is clear that some people seem more readily able to address issues of strategy … [t]hey have a willingness and a self-confidence to address larger, more basic issues than do others … [h ]ow do they get this way?” He notes the importance of a stimulating and supportive environment, such as that at RAND in the 50s and early 60s. Although successful strategists may come from a variety of educational backgrounds, Marshall believes that training in economics, business or applied technology is most likely to produce the cast of mind that is needed. Readers will find most interesting Marshall’s description of how he and Herman Kahn puzzled over why economists played such a large and central role in the studies RAND produced in the 50s. Their eventual explanation was that economists are well aware that even experts can be wrong, and that many widely held views, even among responsible people are faulty. In the hard sciences and engineering there are real experts who are much more likely to be right than the others. Kahn and Marshall decided “Economists, therefore, were more intellectually comfortable in the situation that existed with respect to nuclear warfare, in which there were no experts.” To this prescription Fred lkle, in his chapter The Role of Character and Intellect in Strategy adds that “Good work on national security strategy — unlike most intellectual endeavors – demands good character.” Some readers may be thinking where is Voltaire when we most need him, but Ikle has several good points in the chapter, including the fact that a strategist must be a realist. He cannot afford to ignore inconvenient realities nor assume that a problem is simpler that it is in fact Ikle points out that the consequences of bad strategy in the nuclear age may be appallingly catastrophic. There are many other good pieces in the book. There is a chapter by Jasper Welch on Technolo~ and U.S. Strate~ which points out many of the current impediments to successful application of technology to our security problems.

And there is a chapter by William Odom on why the Soviets build such large military forces, which may now be of interest principally in forming estimates of how successor regime(s) may behave. Not everything about the book is as we could wish. Certainly the price of just about fifty dollars will send interested readers to their local libraries rather than their bookstores. Some of the chapters are clearly dated. Given the pace of world events that isn’t surprising, but, for example there is a chapter on Clarity. Arms Control. and NATO Strategy by Richard Perle that was adapted from a speech he made in 1987. The piece is characteristically crisp and lucid, but one could have wished for something dealing with the more recent context. But these are nits. The book is successful as a tribute to the Wohlstetters, and successful as a most interesting collection of essays on contemporary strategic issues by some exceedingly bright and articulate people.

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