Discriminate Deterrence

March 1, 1988

Pentagon filing cabinets are full of studies on the battlefield of the future. There are all sorts of master plans and road maps about how forces ought to be organized and equipped twenty years from now. For the most part, though, these studies concentrate on weapons, tactics, and other purely military matters. They are usually interesting — and sometimes brilliant in their particulars — but they tend to employ a predictable framework of analysis. The tomorrow that they project looks a lot like today, except that the technology has gotten better.

“Discriminate Deterrence,” a report submitted to the President January 12 by a blue-ribbon Commission on Long-Term Strategy, presents a vision of broader scope. It foresees a world in which the distribution of power has shifted. The United States and the Soviet Union are no longer so dominant as they were in 1988. China and Japan have become economic superpowers, with options to be military superpowers if they wish. Perhaps forty nations are able to build nuclear weapons. US access to foreign airspace and bases abroad has diminished. Space is a prime arena for military action.

The Commissioners believe that in the twenty-first century, we will worry less about extreme threats — major conflict in Europe or apocalyptic war with the Soviet Union — and more about contingencies in remote corners of the globe. They say that we must be prepared to deliver both nuclear and conventional force over vast distances with great precision and selectivity. The Soviets may mount limited military challenges on the flanks or at points of perceived advantage far from the lines of confrontation in Central Europe. The report speculates that a regional clash of arms between the US and the USSR might be kept within bounds and would not escalate inevitable to worldwide or nuclear war. Even in Europe, the Commissioners say, we should regard theater nuclear weapons mainly as instruments to defeat an invasion rather than assume that their use is an automatic tripwire for Armageddon.

This is scary stuff, and it is too soon to know how much influence the Commission will eventually have on policy. One of the Commissioners, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, thinks that “five years from now we will look back say this was the beginning of the next phase in US nuclear and defense posture. He could be right, but more cautious strategists will find the Commission’s bolder ideas too radical to accept.

The Europeans are already in an uproar. They see the call for discriminate application of force as removing the guaranteed backup of US strategic nuclear forces to deter a conventional attack on Western Europe. “This is precisely what European worriers have all along accused America of wanting to do and precisely what two generations of NATO statesmen have tried to fashion alliance strategy to avoid,” said The Economist in its commentary. “For many people, the possibility of mutual annihilation is what deterrence is all about, and anything that makes a nuclear war look less catastrophic increases the chance of having one.”

The report contains enough ifs, ands, and buts to support a less sever interpretation, but the Commissioners are telling us clearly that the strategy of the past will not do for the future. Soviet power and influence have bypassed the static lines drawn at the end of World War II. Third-World turbulence endangers US interests in the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean, and the Western Pacific. Small and comparatively unstable nations may soon have their fingers on the nuclear trigger. We will need a greater choice of responses to an expanding range of threats.

The Commission’s view of Third-World conflict stirs strong emotions. The Boston Globe terms it “insanity,” calling the Commissioners “troglodytes” whose “methods look a lot like terrorism.” What the report says is that fighting is more likely in the Third World than anywhere else and that US forces will seldom be direct combatants. It proposes that we double or triple our financial support for friendly local forces with the understanding that we may not officially acknowledge our backing for insurgents:

“By designating the US support as a ‘Special Activity’ (also known as a ‘covert action’), the US government can maintain official silence.” Even those who are receptive to changing strategies for changing times may find this notion difficult to choke down.

As the title of the report implies, though, the hear of the strategy is exercise of force in a more “discriminate” or selective manner. The Commission says the “current technology makes it possible to attack fixed targets at any range with accuracies within one to three meters.” It urges the procurement of tens of thousands of precision standoff weapons with ranges significantly beyond those needed in the European theater. Thus armed, the United States might be able to eliminate threats almost anywhere, perhaps with conventional warheads and without reliance on overseas bases. The report says we must overcome the “hose cavalry” syndrome that leads to conservatism in innovation and spend more on aggressive research and development.

Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci hit a harmonious chord with this general idea January 25 in his report to Congress on support of NATO strategy in the 1990s. Mr. Carlucci made his pitch at a less ambitious level, but advocated a “Win Early” concept to defeat an invasion of Europe by employing and other targets deep in enemy territory. He said conversation of all our munitions to ACMs is unaffordable but that effective use of smart weapons in the opening rounds of war might reduce the total number of them that would be needed.

Whatever we think of the report as practical strategy, we should give careful attention to its underlying observations. This Commission is not a bunch of shirttail amateurs. In addition to Mr. Brzezinski, its members include former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former National Security Advisor William Clark, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Graham Claytor, Adm. James Holloway, and Gens. John Vessey, Andrew Coodpaster, and Bernard Schriever. Its co-chairmen are Fred Iklé, then-Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and Albert Wohlstetter, whose strategic credentials have long commanded respect in Washington. Other perspectives are represented on the panel by Ambassador Anne Armstrong, Prof. Samuel Huntington of Harvard, and Joshua Lederberg, President of Rockefeller University.

If we do not like their ideas — and few of us will be willing to agree with them in their entirety — then we are obligated to agree with them in their entirety — then we are obligated to search with some urgency for answers we like better. The Commission’s greatest service may turn out to be having alerted us to the new varieties of danger that lie ahead and having shown us that, in our present condition, we are unprepared for the changes we are about to encounter.