The Dangerous Decade

April 1, 1981
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s foreboding designation of the 1980s as the “dangerous decade” has become a standard ingredient of current Pentagon testimony on Capitol Hill. Both the Department of the Air Force and the Joint Chiefs of Staff themed their posture statements to the dark shadows that Soviet military threats and general global instabilities cast over the scarcely begun decade.

A wealth of facts portends danger for the decade ahead. The Military Posture Statement by the Joint Chiefs of Staff sees the world of the 1980s dominated by proliferation of nuclear weapons and the number of countries possessing them. The warhead count of intercontinental weapons—up by 200 percent from ten years ago—not only is growing, but, “most significantly, the range, accuracy, targeting flexibility, and payload of intercontinental nuclear weapon systems have been markedly improved,” according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At the same time, their report points out, the virtual monopoly over nuclear weapons by the US and the USSR has vanished. Instead, by the end of the decade the Joint Chiefs fear that a dozen or more nations will have acquired “some military nuclear capability.”

The Military Posture Statement sees another gloomy omen in the proliferation in other weapons of mass destruction and willingness on the part of the Soviet Union and its allies to use them. The evidence is significant, according to the Joint Chiefs, that the Soviets and their allies have used toxic chemical weapons in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan and that even small powers like Vietnam and Pakistan appear to have chemical warfare capabilities. Further, even though the US reduced the transfer of arms to Third World countries, the Soviets, their allies, and others are increasing the export of advanced conventional weapon systems. Ethiopia alone, the posture Statement asserts, has received $2 billion worth of Soviet military assistance over the past four years. Libya, Syria, Iraq, and India are other countries that have received large quantities of Soviet weapons, especially modern tanks and aircraft.

Lastly, other developing countries—Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Israel, and North Korea among them—have progressed from the status of importers of arms to manufacturers and suppliers of sophisticated arms for the Third World. The net effect, the Joint Chiefs point out, “has been that developing nations have become armed to the point that they are capable of waging a war of great destructiveness, swiftness, and reach. As a consequence, intraregional conflicts in areas like Southwest Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa more than ever before threaten widespread death and devastation and portend harm to US interests.”

The keystone of US concerns, of course, is that the growth in Soviet military power has nurtured a corresponding propensity on Moscow’s part to interfere directly or indirectly through surrogates, in the affairs of other nations. By reducing the ability of the US and its allies to cope with Soviet and Soviet-supported initiatives, the FY ’82 Posture Statement asserts, “the Soviet Union has laid the foundation for an assertive foreign policy. A growing capability to project military power beyond the periphery of the USSR is a reflection of this Soviet drive to exert influence worldwide. “

These trends of the “dangerous decade” dictate that the US broaden its strategic focus beyond nuclear deterrence and a limited range of theater and regional contingencies. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. David C. Jones, defined this global strategy as “a framework for appropriate levels of response to infringement on our vital national interest. . . . We must have the capability to act when, where, and how it serves our interests, not simply react to crisis at the point of attack. “

Broadened Strategic Focus

The strategy that General Jones recommended to Congress hinges on “applying our strengths against the point of attack (which may be the enemy’s strength), but across a wide array of painful vulnerabilities. The Soviets must be continually faced with the certain prospect that a military move against US or allied interests risks a conflict that could be wider in geography, scope, or violence than they are prepared to deal with. In particular, they must be convinced that an infringement on our vital interests in Southwest Asia would trigger a confrontation with the United States that would not be I confined to that region. “

Implementation of such a strategy, General Jones suggested, will involve an array of steps beyond current programs that seek to boost mobility and force projection. Included here are some stockpiling of military hardware for rapid transfer to friendly nations in distress without forcing the services to draw down their combat stocks. Also essential is closer cooperation with allies in formulating national policies that broadly affect other nations. There should be, in General Jones’s words, “recognition that within the context of collective security, ‘national interest’ must frequently be defined with reference to ‘coalition interest.'”

Equally essential is better integration of this nation’s economic, technological diplomatic, and military policies to ensure a cohesive and consistent whole “greater than the sum of its parts,” including more flexibility in aiding friends and allies. The latter entails, in the view of the Joint Chiefs, “a more forthcoming US stance in direct economic assistance, concessionary military assistance, and sales of military hardware.”

A noteworthy recommendation by the Joint Chiefs—and one that appears to be part of the broadened strategic focus sought by the new Posture Statement—is to expand cautiously security relationships with the People’s Republic of China because that country makes contributions generally consistent with US interests in East Asia and elsewhere by containing significant Soviet forces along the Sino-Soviet border.” In a similar vein, the FY ’82 Defense Report stresses “gradual expansion of military-to-military contact” between the PRC and this country.

At the same time, however, the Military Posture Statement points at the staggering challenge of modernizing the PRC’s military capabilities—and thereby making Beijing an effective military counterweight to Moscow. China’s People’s Liberation Army reflects a generation of isolation from the modern world and four decades of Maoist ideology, with the result that the Chinese forces “are limited by a technological and industrial base that produced weapon systems at least a generation behind those of the West and the Soviet bloc. China must leap decades of technology,” according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It is doubly significant that in spite of the deficient state of the PRC’s armed forces, the Soviet Union feels compelled to assign more than forty-two divisions to the Far East, and that there are indications that this force—especially the units located in Mongolia—will be increased over the next few years.

Redressing Strategic Imbalances

The need to broaden the nation’s strategic focus in no way diminishes the importance of shoring up the effectiveness and credibility of US strategic nuclear forces. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger told the Senate Armed Services Committee that two of the highest priorities in rearming America are “to redress the imbalances that have developed between our strategic nuclear forces and those of the Soviets” and ensuring that these forces are modernized and ready for instant use.

There is a widespread tendency in Washington at present to deride summarily the track record of the Carter Administration in the field of national security. Without arguing the justification for this attitude in general, a central policy nurtured and carried forward by the previous administration deserves to be acknowledged and, within the limits of the actions taken, applauded. That policy is the Carter Administration’s “countervailing strategy.” Although most of the capabilities needed to translate this policy into hardware realities are years away, codification of the goals of the revised doctrine at the White House level is significant and useful.

In his exhaustive farewell report to Congress, former Defense Secretary Harold Brown ranked the affirmation of the countervailing strategy in the form of a Presidential Directive (PD-59) as one of the “significant” achievements of his stewardship over the Defense Department.

Two basic considerations caused the countervailing strategy to evolve in its present form, he told Congress.

The first is that, because it is a strategy of deterrence, the countervailing strategy is designed with the Soviets in mind. That means that the US strategic deterrent must be able to cope with Soviet, and not just US, doctrine and “thresholds.” Equally important, Moscow must be made to understand that US retaliation to nuclear attack will be swift, certain, and entail—from the Soviet perspective—intolerable consequences.

The Carter Administration’s final version of the countervailing strategy represents a positive and overdue departure from the “mirror-imaging” of US strategic thinking—meaning ascribing to Moscow motives, moralities, and inhibitions identical to those of the US—precisely because of a hardheaded and perceptive definition of what constitutes “intolerable consequences” to the Politburo and of its risk assessments so far as nuclear war is concerned.

Several key factors are being weighed by the countervailing strategy in this context: “First, Soviet military doctrine appears to contemplate the possibility of a relatively prolonged nuclear war. Second, there is evidence that they regard military forces as the obvious first targets in a nuclear exchange, not general industrial and economic capacity. Third, the Soviet leadership clearly places a high value on preservation of the regime and on the survival and continued effectiveness of the instruments of state power and control—a value at least as high as that they place on any losses to the general population, short of those involved in a general nuclear war. Fourth, in some contexts, certain elements of Soviet leadership seem to consider Soviet victory in a nuclear war to be at least a theoretical possibility.”

The second basic point made by the countervailing strategy and PD-59 is that because “the world is constantly changing, our strategy evolves slowly, almost continually . . . to adapt to changes in US technology and military capabilities, as well as Soviet technology, and military capabilities as well as Soviet technology, military capabilities, and strategic doctrine.” Capstone of the countervailing strategy, according to Dr. Brown, is the recognition that the unquestioned Soviet attainment of strategic parity has put “the final nail in the coffin of what we long knew was dead—the notion that we could adequately deter the Soviets solely by massive retaliation against their cities.”

Continuum of Options

The new strategy as promulgated by PD-59—and augmented by other, related Presidential Directives—”tells the world that no potential adversary of the United States could ever conclude that the fruits of his aggression would be worth his own costs. This is true whatever the level of conflict contemplated. To the Soviet Union, our strategy makes clear that no course of aggression by them that led to the use of nuclear weapons, on any scale of attack and at any stage of conflict, could lead to victory, however they may define victory,” Dr. Brown reported to Congress.

Five basic elements of PD-59’s force-employment policy funnel and combine into the countervailing strategy, according to Dr. Brown. For one, there must be a “continuum of options, ranging from use of small numbers of strategic and/or theater nuclear weapons aimed at narrowly defined targets, to employment of large portions of our nuclear forces against a broad spectruro of targets,” he told Congress.

Quite admirably, Dr. Brown conceded that the flexibility provided by this continuum of options enhances escalation control even though he remains a skeptic so far as the prospects of preventing limited nuclear strikes from escalating to all-out nuclear exchanges are concerned. His argument is that “we must do everything possible, that opting out of this effort and consciously resigning ourselves to the inevitability of such escalation is a serious abdication of the awesome responsibilities that nuclear weapons, and. the unbelievable damage their uncontrolled use would create, thrust upon us.” At this juncture in his testimony Dr. Brown cited new statistics on the doomsday qualities of nuclear war that some might see as pulling the rug out from under the escalation control argument while others might view it as cementing the case for it.

Beginning with the proposition that an all-out nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union would involve the use of about 16,000 nuclear warheads and bombs that the two countries possess, the former Defense Secretary attempted to define the resultant indescribable horror by outlining the destructive force of a typical nuclear munition—a one-megaton warhead. Detonated on a major American city, such a warhead would produce these effects:

  • All reinforced concrete structures within a radius 0.8 miles would be completely destroyed, as would all small woodframe and brick residences within three and all lightly constructed commercial buildings and typical residences within 4.4 miles;
  • Virtually everyone within a radius of 1.7 miles would be killed instantly, as would more than half of triose within 2.7 miles—totaling about a quarter of a million immediate fatalities.

Moving from this highly unlikely one warhead/one city scenario to so-called “limited” strikes—such as a Soviet attack on the US ICBM force—Dr. Brown reported an astronomic rise in the fatality rate, ranging depending on wind, leather, height of burst, and other specific conditions) “anywhere from 2,000,000 to 22,000,000 fatalities within thirty days.”

For massive nuclear exchanges involving military and economic targets in the US and the USSR, he said, fatality estimates range from a low of 20,000,000 to 5,000,000 up to a high of 155,000,000 to 164,000,000 in he United States, and from a low of 23,000,000 to 4,000,000 up to a high of 64,000,000 to 100,000,000 in the Soviet Union.

Disregarding the question of practical feasibility of applying the brakes once a nuclear exchange has started, the value of escalation control to the “politics” of deterrence is probably undeniable. Hence Dr. Brown’s contention that “the controlled use of nuclear weapons, along with other appropriate military and political actions, should enable us to provide leverage for a negotiated termination of the fighting.” The level of leverage that can be applied under such circumstances probably will be proportionate to the usability to convince Moscow that further escalation will not only be futile but counterproductive.

Under the peculiar logic of nuclear war, a compelling lease thus can be made for structuring initial nuclear strikes so as to leave the enemy with sufficient highly (valued military, economic, and political resources still surviving but still clearly at risk so that the enemy has a strong incentive to seek an end to the conflict, according to Dr. Brown.

Survivability, Sustainability, Flexibility

Escalation control obviously is dependent on the survivability and endurance of one’s nuclear forces and the supporting command control communications and intelligence (C31) capabilities. To say that the US posture in this regard is deficient probably understates the case. Yet survivability and endurance are fundamental to the ability to tailor the employment of nuclear forces to the gamut of changeable and perhaps unanticipated situations and to adjust them for the appropriate responses under all conditions. Lastly, without adequate survivability and endurance, it would be impossible to keep substantial offensive strategic forces in reserve.

In acknowledging the essentiality of the twin nuclear war-fighting traits—survivability and sustainability—Dr. Brown’s Defense Report effectively scuttles this country’s unilateral reliance on “launch on warning” as a long-term solution to ICBM vulnerability. The “use or lose” concept of silo-based ICBMs advocated by many adherents of a minimum deterrence philosophy could lead to unwarranted escalation of strategic conflict, according to Dr. Brown. Worse yet, reliance on a “launch on warning” posture—or “launch on angst,” as it has been dubbed by congressional wags because of the present C31 system’s proclivity for false alarms—could unleash nuclear war by accident at what strategic analysts morbidly refer to as the “city-busting” level.

Dr. Brown’s prescription for solving the survivability and endurance problem is to build the survivably based MX weapon system, ensure the continued survivability of the ballistic missile submarine fleet, and improve strategic C31 capabilities.

The third component of the countervailing strategy is a flexible targeting capability, predicated on the ability to destroy major elements of four general categories of Soviet targets.

The first step here must be to prevent a potential aggressor from gaining a significant strategic advantage after an initial exchange, meaning that ideally his residual strategic forces should be weaker relative to those of the United States than they were before he attacked. The US ability to deny the Soviets a fundamental and favorable shift in the residual strategic balance, however, will remain elusive until MX and advanced attack assessment systems capable of reporting which individual Soviet ICBM launchers have been fired, and which have not, come into the inventory toward the end of the “dangerous decade.”

The other category of “counterforce” targets encompasses the full range of Soviet and, as appropriate, non-Soviet Warsaw Pact military power of both the conventional and nuclear type. As former Defense Secretary Brown put it, “Because the Soviets may define victory in part in terms of the overall postwar military balance, we will give special attention in implementing the countervailing strategy to more effective and more flexible targeting of the full range of military capability, so as to strengthen deterrence.”

Counterforce Targeting and Strategic Reserves

The third set of targets involves “organs of Soviet political and finitary leadership and control” Unambiguous US ability to destroy the upper echelons of the Soviet leadership clearly represents deterrence where it nevertheless, must recognize would play in the termination of hostilities, and [therefore must allow for] scenarios in which destruction of [the Soviet command authorities] would be inadvisable and contrary to our best interest. Perhaps the obvious is worth emphasizing: possession of a capability is not tantamount to exercising it,” according to Dr. Brown.

The countervailing strategy’s emphasis of counterforce targeting does not mean de-emphasis of the ultimate deterrent effect attained by being able to threaten the full Soviet target structure, including the industrial and economic base. Stressing the importance of retaining the assured destruction of the Russian homeland as “an ever-present factor in the Soviet calculus-regarding nuclear war,” Dr. Brown—presumably speaking not only for his own but preceding and succeeding US administrations as well—pointed out that “as a matter of policy, we do not target civilian population per se.” He added, however, that heavy civilian fatalities and other casualties are inevitable in case of an attack on the Soviet industrial and economic bases, which are collocated with the Soviet urban population.

The final element of the countervailing strategy, as spelled out by Dr. Brown, centers on the designation and employment of “adequate, survivable, and enduring reserve forces and the supporting C31 system both during and after a protracted conflict. At a minimum, we will preserve such a dedicated force of strategic weapon systems.”

The overriding virtue of the countervailing strategy, as summarized by the former Defense Secretary, is its intrinsic mandate that the overall capabilities of the US strategic nuclear forces must never be allowed to become inferior—”in appearance or in fact”—to those of the Soviet Union. Secondarily, this strategy presupposes equivalence not only at the top rung of the nuclear escalation ladder but at all steps below, and thus reduces the chance of miscalculations concerning what either the US or the Soviet Union might consider nuclear thresholds.

Survivability and Endurance Upgrades

The Carter Administration’s legacy in terms of programs that, over time, could provide the capabilities needed to transform the countervailing strategy from a t theory into practice is sparse yet promising. The FY ’82-86 program submitted by the outgoing Administration provides for marked improvements of the nation’s missile attack warning and assessment system through the deployment of five mobile (truck-mounted) ground terminals of the early warning satellite systems and of improved satellites that will be able to relay warning messages from the mobile ground terminals to airborne command posts over communications links with increased antijam protection.

The strategic C31 improvement program also envisions acquisition of six E-4B aircraft to support both continuous airborne alert for the Strategic Air Command’s airborne command post and ground alert for the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP) of the National Command Authorities and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The result will be comprehensive communications improvements involving the ICBM force, airborne strategic bombers, and the Navy’s TACAMO aircraft, which relay execution messages concerning SLBM launches to submerged submarines.

Further, the Airborne Launch Control System (Phase III) provides nine EC-135 airborne launch control aircraft with the means to monitor the status of 200 Minuteman ICBMs and to retarget them, thus giving the National Command Authorities the flexibility to employ surviving ICBMs even if an enemy attack disrupts or destroys their fixed ground-based launch control centers. Delivery of the first modified EC-135 capable of remote retargeting and direct alert status reporting from the missile silos is scheduled for early 1984.

Clearly the key element required for attainment of a countervailing posture is a survivably based MX capable of carrying out counterforce missions. But prospects for this vital system are murky since the Reagan Administration-seemingly concerned about potential filibustering by environmentalists-is considering restudying the weapon’s basing mode.

At a press conference in February, Secretary Weinberger asserted that the “immense opportunity” on the part of environmentalists to slow down or even stop the project is a “matter of great concern, because I do think we need to deploy this missile, and I think we need it soon.”

Expressing the view that any reasonably competent attorney could “snarl up” construction of the system’s 4,600 shelters on a piecemeal basis, the Defense Secretary said that he is looking at the possibility of alternate basing modes, including sea-basing. He cited specifically the possibility of basing MX on “old surface vessels that would require very little [development] time and very little cost and which we have” in abundance.

Some congressional and other technical experts look askance at this scheme, known as “Project Hydra,” for a number of reasons. For one, these missile-carrying ships represent extremely “soft” targets—overpressures as low as five pounds per square inch would probably put them out of commission—and ICBMs based in such a manner are deficient in accuracy as well as command and control, compared to land-based systems.

Additionally, it can be argued that Hydra combines the worst of the sea-based and land-based ballistic missile schemes. It lacks the relative survivability of the SLBM force, but shares its vulnerability to attrition by stealth. At the same time, Hydra is devoid of the hardening of the land-based ICBM force, and it can be attacked without the unambiguity—and thus certainty of response—of a weapon system located in the US heartland.

Finally, and possibly its most pronounced deficiency, is Hydra’s vulnerability to seizure by terrorists. It would be impossible to exaggerate the catastrophic consequences of terrorists or other outlaw forces seizing a US surface ship carrying many ICBMs with each of them containing ten high-yield warheads.

Without arguing basing mode details, the Military Posture Statement terms the growing vulnerability of the land-based ICBM force—”the key contributor to our time-urgent hard-target kill capability”—the central challenge to national security at this time. The reason, the statement points out, is that without a high degree of survivability, “the deterrence and crisis stability of our strategic force mix could be seriously compromised.”

Some of the reasons why the strategic sector—and within its bounds the ICBM force—represents the top priority defense challenge for the US in this dangerous decade was spelled out by the Air Force’s posture statement to the Ninety-seventh Congress: “In 1980 alone, the Russians outspent us by nearly a three-to-one margin to upgrade and improve their strategic forces. And there are no indications that this feverish pace will abate in the coming years. . . . While the Soviet Union is improving all aspects of its military capabilities, one of the most alarming trends has been the modernization of its land-based ICBM forces.

“Over the past decade, our estimates indicate the Soviet effort in ICBMs has exceeded that of the US by a factor of four to one. As a result, the Soviet Union now possesses a clear and growing advantage in its ability to destroy hard targets, thereby posing a particularly serious threat to the land-based ICBM force and its associated command control and communications network.”

The Department of the Air Force caps these findings by asserting that “we believe the early deployment of the MX missile in a multiple protective shelter mode is die most effective way to increase the survivability and retaliatory capability of the ICBM force. Deployment of air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) and the bomber modernization programs . . . together with the development of a new long-range combat aircraft are likewise essential strategic enhancements.”

Prospects for a New Strategic Bomber

Prospects for a new multirole strategic bomber, or even one confined solely to the nuclear mission, appear bright at this time. As Secretary Weinberger told Congress, “Based upon the evidence that I have to date, the administration would be inclined to pursue development of a strategic bomber after a thorough but rapid engineering development effort.” Further, Congress has instructed the Secretary of Defense to report this spring on his plans for bringing a multirole bomber into the operational inventory by 1986.

Department of the Air Force testimony lists several candidate designs: “Near-term candidates include B-1 variants, a stretched version of the FB-111, and a new design based on currently available technology,” the latter seemingly meaning low observable or “Stealth” aircraft.

In the case of the B-1 and FB-111 candidates, the Air Force believes initial operational capability involving fifteen aircraft is possible by the mid-1980s. USAF estimates that “a B-1 variant would be able to meet an initial operational capability approximately fifty-six to sixty months from go-ahead, with final aircraft delivery by calendar year 1989 based on a buy of 180 aircraft. The FB-111B/C is estimated to meet an initial operational capability about forty-four to fifty-four months from go-ahead, with final aircraft delivery by calendar year 1987, based on a buy of 150 aircraft. The pursuit of the FB-111B/C option would, of course, also require the replacement of the F-111D [aircraft] taken from the Tactical Air Command by procurement of a suitable replacement. “The he Air Force testimony cautioned that although the FB-111B/C could be put into service earlier, “the B-1 variant would have considerably greater range and weapons load.”

At this writing, the inclination both in Congress and the Executive Branch is to pursue the multirole bomber in two ways, meaning acquisition of a B-1 variant in limited quantities and as rapidly as possible, concurrent with expeditious development of an advanced technology system. The latter—in the form of several test articles—might be available for realistic testing in a simulated combat environment early in the second half of this decade.

Two principal considerations make a dual-track development approach to the bomber program attractive. There are those like former Defense Secretary Brown who hold that reliable penetration of the prospective Soviet air defenses in the 1990s is likely to require a “Stealth” design. If that, indeed, were so, B-1 type aircraft in the inventory at that time would be used to launch air-launched cruise missiles from standoff positions and to serve in sea-control and conventional force projection missions. Conversely, there are some experts who question whether “Stealth” bombers can be designed to perform the force projection missions that require long ranges and heavy payloads, especially if it should turn out that these advanced technology designs must include low-level penetration capabilities. Presumably cost factors will play a major role in the decision on whether one or two types of new strategic bombers should be built.

One of the most noteworthy issues raised by the FY ’82 Air Force Posture Statement is an expression of keen interest in ballistic missile defense systems. Major advances in sensor and electronic technology make it possible in the coming decade to build an “affordable” antiballistic missile (ABM) system, the Air Force reported to Congress, adding that “we envision a sufficiently accurate system that would not require a nuclear warhead to destroy incoming reentry vehicles. Precious nuclear materials needed for offensive weapons would not have to be diverted for use by such an ABM system.”

Acknowledging that deployment of such a system would require revision of the ABM treaty—a part of SALT I—currently in force, the Air Force nevertheless suggested that recent technical developments “may alter the situation sufficiently for it to be advantageous to examine extension of the treaty. It is quite possible that, in an era of essential equivalence of strategic nuclear systems, the stability of the strategic balance may be enhanced rather than degraded if both sides have all or at least a portion of their land-based strategic forces protected by nonnuclear, point defense antiballistic missiles.” The advantage of linking MX with ABM to counter Soviet growth in warhead numbers by the end of the century is obvious.

Current testimony on the “dangerous decade” was summarized succinctly by General Jones when he suggested that the great question will be whether the world’s democracies will do what is necessary to assure their survival.

They probably will, but there also is the question of how much longer they can wait before time runs out.