The Idea of Strategic Superiority

March 1, 1982
Since the late 1960s, strategic superiority has received a bad press. It has been judged widely to be:

  • Incompatible with “success” in formal interstate arms-control negotiations (“The Soviets will not sign on for an ‘interior’ strategic allowance.”) Parity is held to be the name of the game.
  • Quite unrealistic in that the USSR can now deny us strategic superiority, i.e., superiority is not attainable, or sustainable (even if briefly attained).
  • A dangerous idea because it encourages the strategic “illiterati” to believe that there are “winnable” nuclear wars (which there not!).

A good part of our problem with the idea of strategic superiority is conceptual. The SALT process has sensitized us to the (often) trivia of “static” numerical balances and imbalances. Save for political perceptual reasons, we should be near-totally uninterested in various schemes for attaining apparent “mathematical parity.” Strategic superiority should be a functional strategic-political concept, not a bean-count balancing idea. With explicit reference to the strategic nuclear forces (and other programs directly relevant to US national performance in a general war), what does strategic superiority mean? I suggest the following: Strategic superiority means the ability (actual and perceived/anticipated by Soviet political leaders and responsible general staff officers)

  • To deter Soviet arms race challenges.
  • To help deter Soviet fomentation of crisis challenges.
  • To help significant to deter Soviet military challenges in a crisis.
  • To help significantly to deter Soviet military breakout from an acute military crisis.
  • To help significantly to deter Soviet rational post-crisis military behavior.
  • To enable the United States to break out from a “local” political or military crisis with a freedom of military action appropriate to the proximate political-military circumstances.
  • To enable the United States to dominate any process of strategic-nuclear escalation that might ensue form a local acute crisis and seek, plausibly, for an improved political outcome at a higher level of armed conflict.
  • To enable the United States, in extremis, to wage a general war and win. (By win, I mean that the United States attains its political objectives, while the USSR does not attain its objectives.)

The argument presented above suggests, implicitly, the strong desirability of US war planning having a political “integrity” from peacetime competition through to the tail-end, and beyond, of the SIOP (i.e., the preparation of a post-SIOP secure strategic reserve force).

Thinking it Through

Central to the concept of strategic superiority, as outlined tersely above, is the idea both that Soviet political-military power and designs be defeatable and that essential US-Western values be survivable. It should be axiomatic to observe that US war planning, let alone strategic force implementation, cannot be appropriately effective solely in the context of the prospective defeat of Soviet political-military power. It is very likely indeed that it will be the United States who is required to force the nuclear escalation pace, in response to some unfolding local military catastrophe in the Persian Gulf or in Western Europe. If this point is accepted, it has to mean that a US President will need to consider the vital questions “Am I deterred?” and “If I take this or that step up the nuclear escalation ladder, what should I anticipate to be the likely Soviet reply?”

An American (of Dutch ancestry) theorist of international relations, Nicholas Spykman, put his finger appropriately on the issue forty years ago.

There is no security in being just as strong as a potential enemy; there is security only in being a little stronger. There is no possibility of action if one’s strength is fully checked; there is a chance for positive foreign policy only if there is a margin of force which can be freely used.

As Spykman implied, a genuine parity in military power (which we do not have today—given Soviet superiority in conventional and theater-nuclear forces) translates into a paralysis of Western policy. If the United States and NATO are content to concede functional military superiority to the Warsaw Pact in conventional and theater nuclear forces, as they are (and this is a matter of Western choice), then functional military-political compensation has to be provided at the level of US central nuclear firepower.

The doctrinal “buzzwords” of the 1970s now lack operational relevance. Who will care whether or not US strategic forces are in a condition of “rough parity” or “essential equivalence”? What will matter is whether the United States can employ its strategic forces to compensate for a galloping disaster in a local theater. A key to understanding what we need in our strategic forces, as Richard Burt has maintained, is the idea of “escalation agility.” Arms control may be newly fashionable in the State Department today, for excellent European-related political reasons, but there is something to be said for Burt’s previous view that

… SALT, as the American-Soviet nuclear competition begins to revolve around nuclear force management issues, has become irrelevant in a new strategic era.

The intention here is not to “put down” arms control, only to say that arms control, at best, may prove to be irrelevant to US Nuclear employment planning, while—at worst—it could have the effect of severely inhibiting employment planning. For example, let us consider the President’s so-called “zero option” for intermediate-range ground-based missiles in Europe. NATO’s plan to deploy 108 Pershing IIs and 464 ground-launched cruise missiles is not intended to balance or counterbalance Soviet SS-20 deployment; rather it is intended to help guarantee an anticipation in Soviet minds that a large war beginning in West-Central Europe would, fairly rapidly, escalate to a conflict directly involving the superpower homelands. NATO needs a good number of those 572 launchers (or their equivalents), whether or not Soviet SS-20 deployment is reduced to zero.

A Definition

The uses of strategic superiority may be summarized as the possession of freedom of diplomatic action in peacetime; the ability to wage crises in expectation of achieving acceptable political outcomes; and the capability, if need be, to wage and survive war at any level. The advocate of US strategic nuclear superiority, far from being an atavistic super-hawk, simply looks at a map and draws prudent conclusions. If US and US-allied forces are overmatched, or even just matched, around the rimlands of Eurasia, how is the US to enforce a tolerable crisis or wartime outcome in the event of a theater struggle

In extremis, the United States has to be able, not incredibly, to threaten central nuclear employment against the Soviet homeland. To pose such a threat requires that the US be able to deter a massive Soviet countermilitary (and counter C3I) preemptive strike, and be able to strike at Soviet zone of interior military assets reasonably confident that the quantity and quality of Soviet retaliation can be intercepted, absorbed, and generally kept to a “tolerable” level. What is a “tolerable” level? One should not place unbounded faith in any single, or very limited number, of damage-limiting instruments. Serious damage-limitation would be the product of many programs functioning synergistically:

  • Of strategic antisubmarine warfare.
  • Of several layers of ballistic missile defense.
  • Of continental United States air defense.
  • Of civil defense and industrial hardening.
  • And generally of robust preparation for societal survival and recovery.

A genuine functional strategic parity, or essential equivalence, with respect to central systems should spell catastrophe for the United States and her friends and allies. If the United States could not dominate a process of nuclear escalation to coerce the USSR, how could Soviet gains in a theater be reversed? No less to the point, how could a US President, behaving responsibly, even initiate a process of escalation? Sic transit NATO “strategy.”

The problem, clearly, pertains both to political-strategic education and to technical proficiency. First, the United States and NATO should not seek a genuinely equitable strategic or long-range theater nuclear forces agreement with the USSR that would preclude that functional superiority discussed above—that is the road to policy paralysis and to local defeat (or general disaster).

Second, it is vitally important that the following questions be addressed very directly, “Can the job be done?” “What is ‘the job’?” Can the United States extend a plausible promise:

  • To defeat Soviet military-political power (to the point of bringing the future of the Soviet state into very serious question), while
  • Holding down (physically—not through hopes of intrawar deterrence) US casualties to an “acceptable” level?

The above line of argument is not necessarily incompatible with SALT/START. Fairly permissive SALT/START ceilings/floors, in the context of robust US civil, air, and ballistic missile defenses—assuming very intelligent US employment planning—may well be all that we need. We should take a leaf out of the Soviet book and talk parity while planning to win, if need be.

Colin S. Gray, a frequent contributor to this magazine, is President of the National Institute for Public Policy, located at Katonah, N.Y. He is also a consultant to the State Department. Until last November, he was Director of National Security Studies at the Hudson Institute, Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. Dr. Gray’s latest book, The MX ICBM and National Security, was published last year by Praeger. His by-line most recently appeared in AIR FORCE Magazine in the September ’81 issue, with the article “Soviet Vulnerabilities.”