Of Forces and Flinching

May 1, 1983

“We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.” These memorable words, voiced by Secretary of State Dean Rusk during the tense days of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, capture the real meaning of deterrence. In this case the Soviets blinked because we were strong enough to call their hand, and they knew it. As a result, their plans to place nuclear missiles in Cuba were stopped short.

Deterrence isn’t new to Americans. The fortifications that lined our shores from the late 1700s through the mid-1940s were there for use in combat, but they were also to persuade enemies that attacking us would be costly — more costly than it would be worth. Our early Navy was small and had no real hope of controlling the seas, not even those near our coastline. We did hope, however, that having a Navy, even a small one would deter an enemy from attacking.

Prior to 1945 we recognized the value of deterrence, but its role was secondary. We didn’t maintain large standing forces to deter war. Armed forces were mustered and weapons were procured for combat, not to prevent an attack from happening.

Deterrence the Main Objective

With the advent of nuclear weapons, this changed. Deterrence moved from its secondary position to become the main objective of our military forces. The great destructive power of nuclear weapons raised doubts whether there could be a “winner” in a nuclear war, and put a premium on preventing war. Along with these new weapons came the belief that the best way of avoiding war is to have strong forces — in particular nuclear forces — that can cause unacceptable damage to an enemy even if he decides to attack first. The example of the Cuban missile crisis, I believe, illustrates this.

The nuclear capability we have today began with the B-29 bombers of World War II fame. Soon after the war, B-29s were replaced by the first truly intercontinental bomber, the B-36. It was a huge airplane for its day, with a gross weight of 277,000 pounds. With the B-36 began the succession, through the B-47, B-58, and B-52 and the advanced technology bombers we are developing.

In the early days of the nuclear age things were much simpler because America had clear superiority. The situation soon changed though when the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949, well before we thought it would be possible, fielded long-range bombers in the mid-1950s, and deployed their first ICBMs. Less than a decade after the nuclear age had begun, our monopoly in nuclear striking power was over, never to return. But even through the monopoly was gone, we kept our edge well in to the 1960s by exploiting our technological advantage and developing a triad of nuclear forces — manned bombers, ICBMs, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

This triad of forces has worked — it is a very effective deterrent — because it has unique and mutually reinforcing characteristics that could not have been obtained had we chosen to rely on only one or even two types of systems. First, it provides insurance. Should a problem develop in one of the parts that make it less effective — the current vulnerability of Minuteman missiles is such a problem — then the other “legs” of the triad can fill the gap and ensure that deterrence is maintained until the problem can be fixed.

The triad also taxes the enemy’s economic and technological strength and prevents him from concentrating his resources, if we had a force composed only of bombers and SLBMs, for example, the Soviets could focus their resources on defeating these two types of systems, perhaps rendering our deterrent ineffective.

Finally, the triad complicates Soviet attack planning because three different problems must be dealt with instead of just one or two. Timing and coordination alone are very difficult when faced with three separate forces operating on land, at sea, and in the air. There is little chance that all three triad legs could be knocked out at the same time, no matter how well planned and executed the attack.

Deferred Modernization

Until recently, the strength of the triad and its ability to deter Soviet aggression were unquestioned. Ironically, the system may have worked too well. Western Europe, the scene of almost constant war in the first half of this century, has enjoyed nearly forty years of peace, despite the presence of a hostile, expansionist Soviet Union. Because the Soviets have no attacked, we in the West have become complacent, and have repeatedly deferred needed modernization of our strategic weapons until now we are in bad shape — the aging B-52 fleet is in need of replacement, and our Minuteman force is becoming less effective and is vulnerable to attack.

When this is contrasted with Soviet strategic force improvements, it is easy to see why decisive action is necessary. The Soviets have developed and deployed new, more powerful, and increasingly accurate strategic systems. Since 1974, they have fielded three new ICBMs — the SS-17, SS-18, and SS-19. This brings total warheads in their ICBM force to more than 6,000 — an increase of 4,500 from 1974. Additionally, although not yet deployed, they have two new ICBMs that are being flight-tested.

Their latest submarine-launched ballistic missile systems have improved accuracy, throw-weight, and reliability. The new twenty-tube Typhoon submarine, for example, is the largest in the world. It will be operational soon with the SS-NX-20 MIRV-capable missile.

The Soviets continue to build thirty Backfire bombers each year while retaining the Bear and Bison bomber forces. Finally, they are testing a new bomber, the Blackjack A. It will be able to carry a variety of payloads, including modern cruise missiles.

Collectively, these Soviet developments seriously challenge the credibility of our nuclear deterrent. During the same period — since 1974 — we have deployed only one new strategic submarine and missile — the Trident — and within the last few months we have just activated the first B-52 squadron equipped with cruise missiles. It’s clear that, if we do not continue our force modernization, we face a dangerous interiority. We have to implement the President’s proposed actions for modernizing and strengthening our strategic forces — all of them.

The President’s five-point plan, announced in October of 1981, calls for:

  • Improving our aging strategic bomber force by fielding 100 B-1B bombers. We are also to accomplish research and development on an advanced “Stealth” bomber;
  • Modernizing our ICBM force;
  • Enhancing the survivability and performance of our command control and communications systems;
  • Upgrading our defenses against bomber and cruise missile attack; and,
  • Deploying a new, more capable submarine-launched missile — the Trident D-5.

The Air Force has responsibility for most of this comprehensive program. By 1990, if kept on track, the program should roughly double the number of strategic weapons that could retaliate after a Soviet first strike. We will significantly improve our ability to destroy hardened Soviet targets with our ICBMs and SLBMs, and to penetrate his defenses and attack key targets with our bomber and cruise missile forces. Additionally, we will be better able to communicate with our forces during and after an attack.

These things will happen, of course only if planned actions are carried out, and here’s where the rub comes in. All elements of the President’s program are proceeding well except for ICBM modernization. While we have studied, restudied, and debated, the Soviets have relentlessly continued to modernize. Discussion and debate is important, but as it proceeds we must not forget that we have to maintain a strong triad. The triad’s strength, the insurance it potential Soviet breakthroughs, the drain it places on the enemy’s economy, and the difficult attack-planning problems it causes would be seriously wakened if we were to fall short in our attempts to modernize our ICBMs.

We can’t, as a nation, let this happen. Land-based ICBMs are an essential part of our deterrent capability and have unique qualities that they alone can provide.

One of the most important of these qualities is sovereign basing. To attack our land-based ICBMs, the Soviets must at the same time make the decision to attack the United States. This keeps the threshold of deterrence high. In attacking US territory, the Soviets could harbor no doubt that we would retaliate.

The second advantage resides in the characteristics ICBMs have as weapons. They are responsive, have prompt hard-target capability (can reach their targets in about thirty minutes), have high peacetime alert rates, excellent command and control, and the lowest operating costs of any triad leg. They complement bombers, which takes several hours to reach their targets, and SLBM, which cannot react as promptly.

The third advantage falls into the area of Soviet perceptions. The Soviets have invested heavily in ICBMs, and seventy-five percent of their nuclear strength resides in their strategic missile forces. Our ICBMs can get to Soviet targets quickly and disrupt their ability to execute, control, and pace an attack on us. This bolsters the psychological aspects of deterrence. It keeps the Soviets from gaining an advantage early in a conflict, and denies them the opportunity to blackmail us immediately following an initial attack.

A Strong Message

Finally, modernizing our ICBM forces sends a strong message to the would that we mean business. It shows our allies that we can make the really had decisions — decisions similar o those we have asked them to make in modernizing the Theater Nuclear Forces. It also shows the Soviets that we intend to bargain in the START talks from a position of strength. This is vital in negotiating equitable agreements to reduce strategic arms, as our past dealings with the Soviets illustrate.

If we take full advantage of our current progress — progress made possible by the strong commitment of the American people and by the measured investments being made in national defense — we can continue to look the bear in the eye without flinching.

Here’s where I’m concerned the most. Many Americans are beginning to question to need for increased defense spending. These questions, in my judgment, arise from genuine concern with the state of the economy and the size of the federal deficit. But we must be careful not to let these concerns jeopardize the progress we are making in rebuilding our defenses. We must sustain the badly needed modernization of our forces now under way — in particular the modernization of our strategic forces. The latter are particularly vulnerable to cuts because the job they do is not well understood — but it is a job that must be done. The threat won’t allow us to return to the mode of putting of badly needed improvements, like the modernization of our ICBM forces, year after year.

We can, as a nation, afford the improvements the President has proposed. We are spending only a little more than six percent of our GNP on defense today as a compared to about eight or nine percent in the 1950s and 1960s — a time when we enjoyed clear nuclear superiority. Further, it looks as if the economy is beginning to recover, and will be better able to support planned defense improvements. The most recent information available shows the leading economic indicators in January up 3.6 percent, the largest increase in thirty-three years. Durable goods, housing, and automobile production are also up.

Can our country afford to support a strong military and vital strategic modernization? Yes! We have to. With continued moderate growth in defense spending, America will have the forces she needs to deter aggression. I can think of no more important an investment for us to make.

Gen. Charles A. Gabriel graduated from the US Military Academy in 1950. He flew 100 combat missions during the Korean conflict and was credited with two MiG-15 victories. After staff positions both in the US and Europe, he was assigned as commander of a reconnaissance wing in Thailand in the early 1970s, where he flew 152 combat missions in F-4s. Subsequently serving in key posts in TAC, Korea, and Hq. USAF, General Gabriel assumed command of USAFE in August 1980. He was assigned as Air Force Chief of Staff in July 1982.