Do We Need Unlimited Forces for Limited War?

March 1, 1959

There are some who claim that the only wars nations need worry about in the future are cold wars and limited wars. The principal argument is that all major powers now realize the futility of general war, that general war is no longer a profitable means of achieving national objectives, and that henceforth aggression can only have a profitable outcome in the cold and limited-war fields.

The idea has its origin in fear of massive atomic destruction. This fear causes many, including responsible officials, to “wish away” the threat on the assumption that no nation will ever start a war that could only result in mutual annihilation. It is the so-called “stalemate concept.”

In a democracy defense programs are frequently influenced as much by intuitive public an official opinion as they are by scientific study and objective analysis. As a result, questionable defense concepts, promulgated by individuals with parochial views or with little or no military background, may well gain general acceptance, particularly when they appear valid to the layman and cater to what people would like to believe rather than the facts. Much of the current talk of the alleged need to augment the limited-war effort of the United States falls in this category.

National defense programs cannot be influenced either by wishful thinking, based on assumed enemy intentions, or by a “hot-and-cold” approach to specific parts of the over-all effort. One cannot disassociate the general and limited-war effort from one another, concentrating first on one and then on the other while ignoring the relationship between the two at any given time.

While much has been written about our apparent neglect of the limited-war threat, this threat is seldom discussed in the context of our over-all deterrent posture, or, particularly, to the general-war capability. Yet, the relationship of the war posture to the goal of deterring or fighting both general and limited wars is all-important. As stated by General Gavin (see box), any one posture can only be intelligently argued within the context of the others.

General Gavin, in his recent book, War and Peace in the Space Age, had this to say about the relationship of limited to general war:

“A much discussed topic today is limited war and much of it, I fear, is wishful thinking. For a limited-war concept is only valid within an impressive overall capability to wage general war. No opponent will ever accommodate us to the extent of allowing us to fight a limited war merely because that is what we want to fight, and, more significantly, because that is all that we are capable of fighting. Actually, a nation dare not risk a limited undertaking without possessing the obvious capability of fighting a general war. And to the extent that we have the latter capability, we may indulge ourselves in the former. This applies to both the US and the USSR.”

I propose to argue that a policy of deterring war-all types of war-may well be best served by a diversified general-war capability, supported by a well publicized willingness to use it effectively to deal with major acts of aggression anywhere in the free world. In the final analysis it is the general-war capability that contributes most to deterring major limited acts of aggression and not the real or alleged ability to deal locally with such acts. Before we can usefully argue this thesis, however, we must be clear as to just what we are talking about when we speak of “limited war,” “general war,” and “unlimited war.”

The terms “general war” and “limited war” mean different things to different people. The general or limited nature of a future war will also depend to a great extent upon the position, or situation, of the nation defining it. For instance, a war that would be considered limited by the US can very well be considered a total war from the point of view of other participants ho may be expected to act accordingly. Korea, which for us was a limited war, was a total war from the point of view of the South Koreans.

General war can best be defined, from the point of view of the US, as a war in which the armed forces of both the US and a major opponent, such as the USSR, are overtly engaged and their populations and economies are subjected to direct military attack. General war is further characterized by the use of all weapon systems available to the extent that these may contribute to the political and military objectives of either side, and by a total lack of any geographical restrictions with respect to where combat operations may take place.

There is a tendency to equate the terms “general war” and “unlimited war,” which, according to my definitions, are not necessarily the same thing. A war can be “general” from the point of view of all major participants, and, at the same time, include certain mutually accepted restrictions with respect to the amount of destruction sought by either side or the ultimate, objectives of either side.

On the other hand, unlimited war implies that there are no bounds to the nature of scope of military operations. Unlimited war calls for the unrestricted use, of any and all types of destruction with the ultimate objectives of achieving a complete overthrow of the opponent’s major sources of power, including his political and economic structure.

Thus, an unlimited war will also be a general war, but the converse need not necessarily be true. This is an important difference in the atomic age since mutual deterrence concepts, annihilation theories, and atomic limitations stem more from fear of “unlimited” war, where populations are primary targets, than from a fear of “general” war as we have defined it.

Consider how a general war could take place without being unlimited. Let us assume that a NATO nation is attacked, on the assumption that fear of mutual annihilation will prevent the free world from committing its general-war strategic forces, thus promising a favorable outcome to the aggressor who has local superiority. Let us further assume that the aggressor misses his guess and that we honor our commitments to use any and all forces required to defend our allies. The resulting misestimate of our will and capabilities would result in the free world’s gaining the strategic initiative — a not unlikely situation since it is what occurred in Korea, Greece, and Jordan, where in each case we intervened when the enemy thought we would not.

In the situation we have just postulated, the enemy objective might well be the overthrow of a NATO nation, not the overthrow of the US. The US response, no matter what forces it involves, could be calculated to defend the NATO nation under attack.

With this objective in mind, and having decided that a successful outcome requires a strategic effort, we might we attack, first, enemy strategic capability, in order to protect us from subsequent retaliation in kind, and, second, the forces specifically threatening the allied nation concerned. In this case, I believe the desired objective could be achieved without unlimited attack on the enemy population or the overthrow of the enemy government. This would, fit our definition of a general war but not an unlimited war, and our capability to act in the above manner is clearly the best deterrent to the assumed act of possible aggression.

From this example it is easy to see that there can be more than a subtle difference between the military requirements for general war and for unlimited war. I shall have more to say on this after we consider the definition of limited war.

Limited wars can be defined as wars in which the full-armed strength of the major participants is not overtly subject to direct military attack. Limited wars are generally characterized by sanctuaries, selective application of force, and the implicit desire by all parties to keep the military action localized and the political objectives circumscribed. Under these conditions, and by this definition, the objective of the major powers must be such that their national survival is not directly at stake.

There are many historical examples of limited wars — more in fact than there are of general wars — at least from the US point of view. Losses anticipated in a general or unlimited war, in the past, did not threaten national survival until the advent of airpower extended the battlefield to all parts of the opposing nations. Thus, unlimited war s a product of the atomic age, and general war is the result of airpower with global accessibility. This accounts for the fact that military historians have never adequately dealt with the relationship between unlimited general, and limited war in the modern sense. It also helps to explain why there is now a need to see clearly in these matters if the military is to have a sound defense policy in the atomic age.

Another relatively new concept is that of deterrence. Deterrence was a recognized objective in the past but never to the extent that the military capability was influenced primarily by this consideration. Today, however, deterrence has assumed such importance that defense structures are frequently oriented more for their deterrent effect than for their war-winning possibilities. It is important, therefore, that we understand the basic possibilities and limitations of deterrence as well as the difference types of war we might have to fight should deterrence fail.

So much has been said about deterrence in relation to national survival that there is a growing tendency to orient the national military organization, and particularly the general-war forces, solely toward this goal. While deterrence of war is clearly a desirable objective, the military planner cannot overlook the possibility that it will not succeed. It is more a political than a military objective since deterrence aims at the national decision rather than at enemy forces. As such, from the military point of view, a national defense organization, while contributing to deterring war, cannot allow preoccupation with deterrence to detract unduly from its main purpose of successfully prosecuting war of any type, should it occur. This is an important consideration since the military capabilities associated with deterrence are not necessarily synonymous with those best suited to fighting, either in limited or general war.

Deterrence is achieved by a combination of military and nonmilitary measures, actions, and capabilities, designed to dissuade a potential enemy from deliberately initiating limited or general war, by convincing him that the cost and the risks involved outweigh his chances of gain. By this very definition an adequate deterrent force is not necessarily an adequate fighting force, although an adequate fighting force acquires deterrent capability as an extra divided.

For example, it can be argued that the ability to destroy a very high percentage of an aggressor’s population under any given set of circumstances meets the requirements of deterrence of general or unlimited war. This ability, however, without the accompanying capacity to destroy the enemy’ military threat, is certainly not the best way to ensure a successful outcome should the deterrent fail, nor will it deter limited wars wherein the objectives of both sides do not warrant risking mutual annihilation.

Another word which has assumed importance n public discussions on national defense is “retaliation.” When one speaks of modern military capabilities in connection with deterrence or with prosecuting a war, the free world tends to qualify the military effort as being a retaliatory effort. The intent is obviously and properly to imply that the onus of initiating the conflict is on the other side. As in the case of deterrence, however, the use of retaliation in connection with our military effort tends to mislead some people with respect to the situation that might actually exist at the onset of the “hot” war.

Mr. Dulles, in speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in June 1958, stated: “I think it is important in estimating these things to bear in mind that a calculated attack would be made only if it were a prior calculation that it could so destroy our capacity to retaliate that the homeland of the attacker would be relatively immune. We do not believe that there is, or at any predictable time will be, a capacity to so knock out our retaliatory power that the homeland of the attacker would be immune. We believe, therefore, that we have, and will continue to have, an effective deterrent.” (Italics supplied.)

The use of the word “retaliation” in the above context, while technically correct, frequently conveys to the general public meanings beyond those actually intended. The principal one is the assumption that, when the word is used in conjunction with strategic general-war forces, it implies that the enemy’s act of aggression leading to our “retaliation” must be a general-war act and/or include an attack against the US proper or against US forces. This is not necessarily correct.

From a military point of view, we must make it clear that “retaliation” in no way defines the location or scope of our response, the size f forces involved, or the nature of the act of aggression.

“Retaliation” also tends to convey the idea of “revenge.” Obviously, no sound national defense policy can be based on revenge, nor can the military concern itself with planning and developing forces for military operations, which do no contribute to the outcome of a conflict in a measurable way. To avoid such implications it seems desirable to minimize the use of the word “retaliation” in connection with military operations. While we can properly state that our policy is to retaliate in response to an act of aggression, we do not do so with “retaliatory forces” or by “strategic retaliation.”

Presently, the US is committed to defend its NATO allies. While this commitment does not necessarily spell out exactly how this would be one in the event they are attacked, allied faith in our ability to defend them in an emergency must be largely based upon the presumption that, if necessary, we will use our general-war forces for this purpose. Thus, any misuse of the word “retaliation,” to the effect that our general-war forces will respond only to an attack against America, confuses the issue and reduces allied confidence in the US.

Let us now return to the interrelationship of general and limited war as this may affect national forces and defense activities. We have made a distinction among unlimited, general, and limited war, and we say the requirements for deterrence are not necessarily synonymous with the requirements for war. We now also understand that a retaliation policy by no means precludes taking, under certain circumstances, the strategic initiative with its attendant deterrent and war-winning advantages.

A sound defense posture must first of all assure the national survival, together with an acceptable outcome to general war regardless of how it starts. In addition it must provide an optimum deterrent to unlimited war and the maximum possible deterrent to both general and major limited war. The principal difference here lies in the fact hat, since one cannot postulate an “acceptable outcome” to unlimited war, the best one can do is deter it, whereas this is not true of limited atomic wars or even of some general atomic war situations.

The likelihood and size of future limited wars will depend on national ability to deter limited aggression. Since an enemy obviously will not initiate a local attack unless he calculates that he has local military superiority, effective deterrence of limited wars calls for having either superior military defenses at all threatened points, or a general-war capability whose possible use would more than compensate for the lack of local superiority.

To match an enemy local war threat at all points would mean that the free world must maintain several times more over-all force than the enemy. This stems from the fact that the Communist block enjoys inside lines of communications when it comes to shifting its strength to its various borders, and because the free world has been unable — even in NATO — to realize the benefits of a collectively balanced effort. National requirements and aspirations result in much duplication and in the financing of forces in many countries, which cannot be counted as assets in either limited or genera war with the East.

Thus, it would seem unrealistic for the free world to attempt to build or deploy forces adequate to deal locally with any and all possible acts of aggression, nor is this necessary. Early NATO plans attempted to provide for an adequate defense in Europe independent of the global strategic effort. After this effort had been costed out at the NATO Lisbon Conference of 1953, this concept gave way to one that recognized the complementary nature of the US strategic and local defense efforts. The lessons of Lisbon notwithstanding, I still hear people advocating the development of forces to deter and fight all wars outside the US on a limited basis, on the questionable assumption that such forces can be paid for out of the very cuts in the strategic effort which will invite the attack.

If one rejects the idea of maintaining standing forces in all vital areas of the free world that are adequate to deter or fight successfully without the support of the global strategic effort, we must consider whether it would be realistic to rely for the defense of these areas on post-D-Day deployments from the US or other allied areas. This was the classical US approach to overseas defense in the pre-atomic age of wars of attrition where the relatively slow pace of destruction with TNT weapons permitted a holding and buildup phase to precede decisive military operations.

Since Hiroshima it has become more and more difficult to conceive of a moor war of attrition. This is not due to military choice, but to the fact that the atomic weapon has conferred on major powers the ability to build and stockpile in peacetime the maximum destructive power that their most sanguine plans call for. Under these conditions their most sanguine plans call for. Under these conditions any atomic war must envisage the delivery of these weapons from the onset.

In atomic war the initial phase will no doubt be the decisive phase. There can be no holding or buildup requirements except as needed to provide additional delivery means for the weapons in stock. Under these circumstances, reliance on post-D-Day deployments cannot hope to deter major limited wars if the aggressor is prepared to use tactical atomic weapons, for in this case the time factor becomes crucial, and deployments through ports, airfields, or across beaches are all too easily interdicted with nuclear weapons.

The only remaining course of action is to rely on the over-all general-war capability to deter or defeat local aggression. I submit that this can and must be done, as it has to date, and without necessarily invoking the concept of massive retaliation.

An aggressor can rationally begin a limited war only in an area where he is reasonable certain that our national policy will preclude our responding to the extent of general war, or, if he considers that his general forces are strong enough to deter us from extending the war regardless of the threat it may present to our survival or that of our allies, notwithstanding the fact that he offers us the initiative.

The ability of the strategic force to attack and destroy the existing long-range air and missile threat to this country, given the initiative, is the major deterrent to aggression, particularly in Europe. This deterrent is not synonymous, however, with the so-called concept of massive retaliation as generally understood. Massive retaliation relates principally to what happens after the enemy tries a surprise attack against the US proper. The deterrent to an attack of this nature lies in the Strategic Air Command’s capability, even after having been hit first, to strike back, “retaliate,” with sufficient atomic power to wipe out the enemy’s major urban centers. This is massive retaliation. The targets are cities; the forces used are those that survive the initial attack; and the objective is to devastate the enemy nation to the extent that it would not be able to capitalize on its act of aggression.

Now, the ability to destroy cities — the main target of massive retaliation — may constitute a deterrent to surprise attack against the US. It does not, however, in any way deter aggression anywhere else in the world, including NATO. What has deterred aggression in Europe and in other vital allied areas for the past ten years has been primarily the counterforce aspect of the general-war capability, backed up by the expressed willingness to use any and all forces to defend the free world if it should become necessary.

Why is it the counterforce capacity of our strategic force that deters major limited acts of aggression, and not the so-called massive retaliatory or city-bombing capacity Principally because massive retaliation, with cities and peoples as the primary target, would be invoked only as a last resort, and the enemy knows this. In a case of this nature, the enemy long-range forces have already hit us and our reduced strength limits the number of targets we can engage. Under these circumstances it appears neither profitable nor possible to destroy the enemy military threat per se — instead we are obliged to go for the jugular vein of the nation for lack of a better military objective. This is unlimited war, which by our earlier definition neither side would rationally initiate since the outcome would border on mutual annihilation.

On the other hand, the counterforce capability of the strategic general-war forces constitutes the one threat to an aggressor, which, if exercised effectively, would lead, not to mutual destruction but to the defeat of the aggressor. The one thing the Communist powers can never afford to do is surrender to the free world the strategic initiative under conditions where our exploitation of it — should we accept the challenge — would result in the destruction of their military capability to attack the US. Fear of this is the real deterrent to major limited aggression.

This leads to the conclusion that limited war can only occur under conditions, which specifically relate to the general-war capability. In other words, without a fully effective general-war capability, the US cannot respond effectively to an act of limited aggression.

Should the national general-war capability become suspect as a result of policies which preclude its use except in a case of last resort, wherein US survival per se is at stake, or should it become suspect as a result of decreased emphasis on the development and production of our general-war forces, o a combination of these two considerations, we would clearly invite a major limited aggression in any and all areas where an aggressive enemy could hope to obtain local preponderance of force.

An enemy nation will be most effectively deterred from attempting major acts of limited aggression if and when he can be made to realize that the US has both the will and the physical capability to retaliate with our general-war forces, and that, should we do so, the resulting possession of the initiative will lead to our destroying the enemy’s general-war capability without invoking massive retaliation, but in such a way as to prevent him from achieving his limited objectives.

Because strategic general-war forces have the capacity for massive retaliation, in the event an aggressor should initiate unlimited war, does not mean that they cannot also be organized and equipped for more selective employment in a lesser situation. In that case the nation’s general-war forces are called upon to deal with the lesser threat but without the need for prior redeployment. Their known ability to do this, and the nation’s stated intentions to use them, if necessary, in this manner constitute the best possible deterrence to limited war.

Regardless of its deterrent value, however, a sound, flexible, and adequate general-war defense and strategic offense posture is becoming more important than in the past, since the likelihood of a general war developing out of lesser conflicts is growing daily. This stems not from any reappraisal of enemy intentions but from the steady improvement in the Communist ballistic missile and long-range bomber threat.

When and if the enemy’s military capability leads him to believe that he has achieved a favorable position vis-à-vis our general-war capability, he will undoubtedly become more adventuristic politically and militarily, since he will become less concerned about the possibility of our responding with our general-war forces in answer to lesser acts of aggression. This, in turn, will enhance the risk of general war.

An objective study of the relationship between the general-war and limited-war requirements, therefore, suggests that the free world defenses are best served by continuing to generate and maintain a general-war posture capable of deterring both general and major acts of limited aggression. This requires that the nation’s general-war force structure has a selective counterforce capability, which can be used either in response to acts of limited aggression or in retaliation for a surprise attack against America. It also tends to make suspect the implication in many current writings that the US is not devoting sufficient attention to the development and maintenance of forces specifically designed to meet the limited-war threat wherever it may appear.

In the final analysis it is the so-called big-bomb capability that prevents limited war in areas of real concern to our security. This capability, however, is not necessarily synonymous with massive retaliation. Admittedly, there are areas where limited conflicts may occur and where neither our commitments nor our interests require us to respond with the general-war forces. In these areas we can anticipate limited military operations, and we should maintain a capability for this purpose.

On the other hand, any area of the free world whose loss is of sufficient concern to the US to warrant the commitment of the general-war capability for its preservation requires only token local defenses of shield forces. This being true, provided we maintain the necessary general-war posture, we can deep our limited-war requirements quite modest.

Failure to maintain the flexible counterforce capability we now have in our strategic effort will lead to establishing unlimited requirements for local defense operations. This is a policy which could lead to political, economic, and military bankruptcy, and which would almost inevitably spell defeat.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.