We Need a True Balance of Defense

July 1, 1959

From “Orbit,” a quarterly journal of world affairs, published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute of the University of Pennsylvania.

What is meant by “balance” in national interest and national security There has been a tendency in the past to regard this problem primarily through a military lens; we have been prone to speak of balance as between armed forces, strategic airpower as against small mobile land units, submarine vs. carrier, or this as against that type of missile. Yet, the modern conflict in which we are unwilling participants is characterized by a multitude of phases and aspects of which shooting is only one. True, the buildup and maintenance of its military establishment is the most urgent task confronting the United States. Nevertheless, sight should not be lost of the fact that the contest may never be one of blast and heat, of searing metal and unseen rays. The present tests of strength, actively in progress, are political, psychological, technological, and economic more than military.

The success of the Communists in waging their brand of conflict has derived precisely from a broader strategic vision, from a conception of the struggle as an organic whole, the various components of which are kept in a constant and high state of coordination. At a given stage of the struggle, this or that segment of the conflict spectrum — be it political, economic, military, or technological — may emerge dominant. Communist conflict doctrine, however, does not admit to exclusive dependence upon any given method of struggle — or, for that matter, on any particular weapon system. In the balanced attack of revolutionary Communism, the means by which the struggle is waged are molded by the objective conditions of the struggle itself. As early as 1906, Lenin paraphrased this conflict doctrine as follows:

“Marxism asks that the various types of struggle be analyzed within their historical framework. To discuss conflict outside its historical and concrete setting is to misunderstand elementary dialectic materialism. At various junctures of the economic evolution, and depending upon changing political, national, cultural, social, and other conditions, different types of struggle may become important and even predominant. As a result of those [sociological] transformations, secondary and subordinate forms of action may change the significance. To try to answer positively or negatively the question of whether a certain tactic is usable, without at the same time studying the concrete conditions confronting a given movement at a precise point of its development, would mean a complete negation of Marxism.”

The central question of our time, therefore, is how we can counter the balanced offensive of our opponent with a balanced defense of our own. In attempting to answer this question in the past, we have been all too prone to oscillate erratically between overconfidence and near despair. Five years ago — even two years ago — the warnings of those who cast doubt upon our over-all capacity to hold Communism at bay were invariably dismissed as the cries of irresponsible Cassandras. This was before Soviet victories in outer space swung the psychological pendulum to the other extreme. Today, one frequently hears the contention that free, pluralistic society lies helpless in the path of a totalitarian enemy who can ruthlessly bend his resources and energies toward the achievement of his objectives.

There is cause neither for complacency nor for despair; there is a pressing need for a sober assessment of the facts. Modern history affords ample proof that a democracy can be an infinitely superior organizational form in winning a life-and-death struggle. Advanced technology, modern logistics, machine warfare — these key factors of modern war were introduced by democratic societies, precisely because these societies made full provision for the utilization of the initiative of their most skillful and imaginative citizens. The opportunity of drawing on these millions of centers of initiative is something that the Soviet system does not possess. This probably is where our great strength lies.

Yet, it must be recognized, also, that strength does not spring automatically from a democratic way of life. To transform potential strength into actual, dynamic power requires labor and sacrifice, spurred and sustained by a sense of urgency and a firm will. It is perhaps in this area of intangibles that our balance has been lacking and that our greatest effort is required.

Our Potential

While they may be subject to varying interpretations, the basic long-range goals of this nation are clear. First and fundamental to our objectives, we want to preserve our own freedom. Second, we want to safeguard the freedom of other peoples. Third, we want to project the message of the free society to peoples now living in the darkness of oppression or in the dusk of social awakening.

What should be the strategy aimed at achieving these long-range goals For the foreseeable future, it must be to prevent the potential aggressor from winning the technological race. The Soviets must be barred from acquiring the capability to spring a devastating surprise attack on this country and from gaining the margin of strength to blackmail us. Beyond this, new nations must be given the hope that they can attain a better standard of living. Finally, our enemies must be convinced that we intend no aggressive action against them or any other nation, but that we will fight determinedly against any threat to our freedom.

The achievement of these objectives lies within our power. The basic asset of the United States is the vitality of its way of life and of its free institutions. Mesmerized by the dynamics of revolutionary communism, we tend only too often to underestimate the force of our own ideals. They have proven meaningful not only to Americans and to our kinsmen in the democracies of Western Europe, but to other peoples throughout the world, including those living in the shadow of Soviet oppression. The Hungarian revolt of 1956, tragic though its outcome was, proved conclusively that no man-made barrier, such as the Iron Curtain, can completely insulate the Soviet empire against the power of these ideals.

Economically, the massive industrial structure of the United States enables its people to enjoy the highest standard of living in history, even while they match the great military effort of an enemy who, in order to exert that effort, must deprive his people of all but a Spartan level of existence. The United States roughly matches the economic resources, which the Soviet Union devotes to its military establishment — and does so at a cost of perhaps ten percent of the Gross National Product, while Moscow expends about twenty-five percent.

Present Soviet Gross national Product is estimated at the equivalent of more than $175 billion per year. When the last Russian tsar was dethroned, his country possessed the sixth largest Gross National Product in the world. Russia’s GNP now ranks second to ours. In 1950, it was a third of ours; today it is more than forty percent. This means that, since 1950, the Soviet economy has been growing twice as fast as ours. To state it another way, the rate of its average annual growth has been about seven percent, with industrial production expanding about ten percent per year. Between 1950 and 1957, this over-all figure compares to a 3.4 percent annual economic growth in the United States over the corresponding period. This growth of ours may have shown a decline in 1958, and the new seven-year Soviet plan calls for an even sharper gain. Nevertheless, our Gross National Product is still very much larger than that of the Soviets. This gives us, if we are willing to use it intensively, a continuing massive advantage over Russia in the economic field.

We could press this advantage by enlarging our military expenditures in order to produce essential new weapons rapidly. Moscow, in order to produce essential new weapons rapidly. Moscow, in order to match our increased output, would be forced to divert 2.5 percent more of the Russian Gross National Product to maintain the pace for each additional increase of one percent of ours. In other words, the Soviets would have to divert additional resources from an already barren civilian economy to match what would be a minor subtraction from our present standard of living. Thus, a stepped-up arms race would impose a far greater burden upon the Soviet economy than that which the US economy would assume. This, of course, should not be construed as a suggestion that appropriations be made for the sake of appropriations. Any additional allocation from our Gross National Product for military expenditures would have to be carefully weighed and applied for maximum effectiveness.

Regardless of our continued superiority, Russia’s economic strides are ominous. Even more frightening, however, is Soviet progress in applied technology, which is furthering Communist military goals. While we continue to hold superiority in the technological field, the current rates of Soviet advances portend real danger within the next two to five years. The Soviets clearly lead the United States in physical chemistry, polar geophysics, terrestrial geophysics, and atmospheric research. The military applications of each of these fields is obvious. By contrast, most of the sciences, which are clearly dominated by the United States, are concerned with disease, medicine and affiliated research, genetics, and other nonmilitary areas. But even here the Soviets are stepping up the pace. According to recent authoritative reports, for example, Moscow is training many more doctors and nurses than we are.

In many fields of science, we are regaining our balance and have begun to react to the Soviet challenge. Having shed much of our past complacency about the Soviet Union’s scientific progress, we are beginning to take the measure of the serious lag in the American system of education. American political and educational leaders, and the public in general, are facing this problem in a manner, which holds the promise of satisfactory results. While it is true that the USSR trains many more engineers and scientists each year than we, we continue to hold the decisive edge in the quality of training. Another of our great assets is the extremely high level of technological skill achieved by the workers who man our massive industrial establishment.

A cursory examination of the military field shows that we have the wherewithal to meet the external threat in many fields, but appear increasingly weak in others. We boast today the finest military establishment in our history. Yet the alertness and invulnerability of this military establishment to Soviet surprise attack is open to serious question. The deficiencies in our striking power vis-à-vis that of the Soviets need little elaboration. The Unite States, unless it matches or surpasses the Soviets in the missiles field, may forfeit the deterrent effect of its retaliatory strength and become an increasingly easy prey for Soviet nuclear blackmail.

The total outlook is by no means all black. Nor, on the other hand, is it reassuring. The United States, as the most industrialized nation on this earth, continues to dispose over formidable assets — resources and skills, however, which we have failed fully to mobilize in the struggle with Communism precisely because we have refused to recognize the struggle for what it is. While our society has devoted its major effort toward maximizing human happiness, the Soviet state has been organizing to win the world conflict. In order to demark those areas in which the most urgent remedial action is required, it may be useful to consider the change in relative positions of balance between the US and the USSR, which has taken place since World War II.

The Military Balance

First, let us examine more thoroughly the balance in the military sector. Any assessment of Soviet strength produces few surprises for the highly trained civilian and military intelligence experts who for years have devoted full time to examining minute bits of information on the Soviet armed forces, gathered from thousands of sources. When these fragments are fitted into an over-all pattern, a frighteningly well balanced Soviet armaments program comes into focus.

After World War II, the US made a fundamental decision not to match the Soviets in sheer numbers of guns and troops, but to concentrate instead on technology. It is precisely in the light of these efforts that our present military imbalance is so disturbing. The Russian ground forces, for example, possess greater firepower per unit. They dispose over tactical atomic weapons and are organized and equipped to fight the same battles of wide dispersion and fast deployment, as are the United States forces. They possess rockets with ranges of several hundred miles and are thus in a position to deliver nuclear warheads to targets far beyond the battlefield. Further, these weapons have the needed mobility to follow and support exploiting forces deep into enemy territory.

Almost across the board-in logistics, mobility, armor, and training — Russia’s ground forces not only match ours technologically, but are superior in some respects, such as in armor and, possibly, tactical airlifts. Although US planes scored an impressive kill-ratio over the Russian MIGs in Korea, American planners were admittedly startled by the quality of the Russian aircraft. According to reliable information, Moscow’s newer fighters and bombers are a much better match for our planes than they were in Korea. The Soviets have made numerous advances in jet and rocket engines for manned aircraft. They appear to be closer than we to nuclear propulsion flight.

On the sea, the United States leads Russia in antisubmarine warfare techniques, and our atomic-powered subs give us a solid advantage. But there is evidence that even this lead is shrinking. It is merely a matter of time before Russia will have nuclear subs, with all the tremendous advantages that they might give to an aggressor, and it is an open question whether US antisubmarine warfare capabilities will continue to keep pace with American submarine development.

The flexibility of the Soviet military machine derives mainly from Soviet superiority in a decisive field, namely the ability of their defense chiefs to make faster decisions in many military matters, especially in the rejection of inferior weapon systems. One frequently hears the contention that this is an inherent advantage of a totalitarian system over a democracy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Military and strategic decision making is a matter of organization — the kind of organization of which we are perfectly capable. There is no question that American organizational efforts have not kept pace with the complex requirements of the nuclear age. In World War I, choices had to be made from among perhaps thirty to fifty alternate types of weapons. In World War II, the range of alternatives increased to between 250 and 300 types of weapons. At the time of Korea, the number grew to about 500. Today, we are called upon to opt from between 1,200 and 1,500 weapons types. Given the cost and time of developing — and especially producing — any modern weapon systems, maximum effort must be made to discard as soon as possible those shown to be second-rate.

There is certainly little cause for optimism in this comparison of rival military technologies. There is less when straight numbers are compared. Soviet ground forces alone include two and one half million men, presumably organized into one hundred rifle and seventy-five armored-type divisions. The Russian system of universal military training produces about 700,000 fully trained reservists every year.

Lacking a large surface fleet, the Russians began building submarines at an unprecedented rate after World War II. Today they possess perhaps 500 active subs and, until recently, had been adding approximately seventy-five each year. Some of these subs are said to be capable of launching ballistic missiles at our largest cities from positions off our east and west coasts — a capability which poses one of the greatest threats to our survival in the event of total war. The Soviets have more than 20,000 combat aircraft, and Russian assembly lines have been turning out 10,000 new planes ear years, most of them jets.

Against this array of Soviet strength we have the following: approximately 2,750,000 men serve in the military and naval services of the United States, as against Russia’s estimated 4,000,000 men, not counting satellite armies. We dispose over fifteen active army and three marine divisions, as against 175 for the Soviets. The Navy operates 901 active aircraft. Details of the strength of the United States forces beyond these figures are secret. The figures do not include the strength of our NATO allies.

There is another quasi-military front, which has been sorely neglected, namely the protection of our civilian population against fallout in case of nuclear attack. Several responsible studies have concluded that top priority should be given to major fallout shelter programs — programs which will at least give those who live through the initial devastation of an H-bomb attack a chance for survival.

The logic supporting such projects seems overwhelming. Studies by research groups indicate that twenty-five to thirty million casualties can be expected from a large-scale nuclear attack, about one half of them resulting from fallout radiation injury after the initial onslaught. In other words, adequate numbers of proper shelters might save fifteen million lives. Certainly, no other defense measure promises equal life-saving potential at such a low per capita cost.

But there is another potential result from such shelter programs: They would impose a tremendous extra burden not on our resources but on Russian strategy. Shelters would mean that any Soviet missile or bomber attack would have to be perhaps double the force presently needed to paralyze the United States beyond recovery. Thus, such programs, more than merely a billion-dollar gamble against the day that the Soviet Union might attack, would act as a positive deterrent, much as do our missiles and Strategic Air Command bombers. Our leaders, instead of measuring the cost of civilian defense simply in terms of dollars and cents, might do well to assess the potential impact of an effective shelter program upon the over-all balance between the United States and Russian.

The Economic Balance

The Soviet Union, in the last three years, has committed $2 billion for economic development and military aid to countries in the non-Communist world. This is a relatively small effort when gauged by the large sums that the United States has put into similar programs. Yet, the Communists have obtained maximum effects for their expenditures. With cold calculation, they have directed their foreign aid into areas that may shift the future balance of power in their favor. More than ninety percent of Soviet assistance has gone to six key countries — Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, India, Indonesia, and Yugoslavia. Russia has fashioned her aid and trade policies into a wedge, which she is attempting to drive between the United States and many so-called uncommitted countries. Technical assistance once was one of America’s unique methods for helping less advanced countries. Today, the Soviets have effectively twisted this concept to fit their own purposes. The very fact that Russia, not long ago itself a backward nation, can now extend technical assistance to less developed nations carries tremendous impact. These countries tend to be dazzled by Russia’s record in breaking a short-cut to massive industrialization; they hope, consciously or not, that Moscow will somehow pass on this magic formula to them. What they fail to see or conveniently overlook is the price in living conditions, which the Russian people have paid and continue to pay for Soviet industrial advances.

Whatever the reasons, Communist assistance is making strong headway in critical areas. Over 2,000 Communist bloc technicians are now at work in nine newly developing countries in which the United States has only half that many. But the difference does not lie in numbers alone. Soviet technicians make an ostentatious display of living on the same economic scale as the natives in the countries which they are assisting. Unlike their American competitors, they do not reside in sumptuous houses and apartments, nor do they engage servants. Invariably, they speak the language of the host country fluently.

This feigned humility obviously is designed to stimulate the belief that the Communists are truly interested in helping. It encourages the idea that the Soviets are close to the “masses,” and, by establishing a marked contrast with the scale of living of American technicians abroad, enlarges the already ingrained belief of many countries that they can never hope to achieve the standard of living of the United States. The Soviet method points up the lesson that the Russian challenge cannot be solved by mere currency. Money alone cannot attract enough capable and responsible people who are willing to travel into the hinterlands of the world and work shoulder-to-shoulder with needy people. What is needed in our foreign aid program is something in the nature of a crusade. We need to enlist the services of many of our best citizens — from businessmen to teachers, to bank presidents, to doctors and electricians. We have referred before to the intangible weapons in the present conflict: a sense of urgency and a willingness to sacrifice. It is in this area urgency and a willingness to sacrifice. It is in this area of economic and technical assistance that these qualities must be — indeed, need be — applied promptly.

The United States is encountering, also, setbacks in another economic area in which we have long considered ourselves the unchallenged leaders, namely the ability to trade with other nations of the world. American salesmen traditionally have been among the best in the world. Yet, free-wheeling, fast-talking delegations from Russia and the Communist bloc are challenging this superiority. Communist “capitalists” are concluding agreements, exploring business opportunities, wining and dining prospective customers, and staging exhibitions at trade fairs throughout the non-Communist world. They try to make good Khrushchev’s boast: “we declare war upon you in the peaceful field of trade. We will win over the United States.”

Soviet salesmen, accountable only to the Kremlin and unfettered by the need to balance ruble losses with gains, have often been able to underbid our prices and interest rates and settle for easier repayment terms. Whatever their techniques, statistics show that Russia has climbed to sixth place in the world as a trader from her lowly position of sixteenth before the second world war. She now had trade agreements with at least thirty-one nations outside the Iron Curtain. In the past two years, Russia’s trade with the West has forged rapidly ahead. In 1957 alone, seventy percent of the increase in the Communists’ volume of trade with non-Communist nations was with Western Europe. Indicative of this trade offensive was a $750 million trade agreement concluded with West Germany in 1958.

In assessing the Soviet economic challenge, however, we must never lose sight of one central fact alluded to above: The stepped-up economic offensive of Moscow, like its military program, has been made possible only by the most ruthless allocation of Soviet resources. When we examine Soviet economic expansion in terms of how little it means to the Russians in human comforts, a serious weakness of Moscow’s economic machine comes into focus.

Soviet per capita consumption is now about one fifth that of America. The Russian production of automobiles, refrigerators, and washing machines, for example, stands at only four percent of ours. A United Nations study reveals that city housing standards in the Soviet Union are the lowest in Europe. Russia’s own official statistics show that the diet of the average Russian has improved little in the past forty years. While the agricultural establishment of the United States produces too much for Americans to consume — and does this with about one tenth of our nation’s labor force — Soviet agriculture, employing half of Russia’ total working force, turns out barely enough grains, potatoes, and cabbage… to sustain the Soviet population at a subsistence level.

There is no question that the Communist economic planners have, for some time, been walking precariously on a tightwire. They must calculate to a fine degree just how much the Russian people will endure without rebelling, as did the East Germans in 1953 and the Poles and Hungarians in 1956. Stalin’s heirs have openly acknowledged the need to give the Russian consumer a somewhat better life. They cannot long continue to turn a deaf ear to the demand of a growing number of scientists and technicians who have been promised cars, better homes, and more food. Thus, there is a hope — albeit not too bright a one-that a growing demand for consumer goods in Russia may force Communist leaders to reduce armament production and industrial expansion in order to make good on promises of an improved standard of living. The Soviets owe their greatly improved military position to the fact that they have been spending twenty-five percent of their Gross National Product for defense. But this rate of sacrifice has kept the Russian standard of living near the breaking point. We have it in our power to tighten the pinch on the Soviet economy by accelerating our own arms program.

The Prospects

The preceding sections have attempted to sketch in general terms our over-all balance vis-à-vis that of the Soviet Union. A balance sheet, drawn up as of today, presents a sobering picture. But any balance sheet is merely a reflection of an instant in time. We have omitted such intangibles as good will, worth billions in the achievable total of the efforts of free men. The balance sheet also contains those untapped developments, which will grow out of a sense of urgency and massive effort. Four times in the last twenty years America has demonstrated its ability to spring into action when a great national need is recognized and made clear. This has been true at all levels of American national life. We did so in World War II; we did it again in 1947-48, when we rose to push back the Soviet political, economic, and military challenge in Greece and Western Europe. Finally, we rose to the occasion in 1950 when aggression struck in Korea.

Our enemy, however, cannot be expected to continue to present us with the kind of straightforward challenge, which has galvanized us into action in the past. The Soviets have mastered the refinements of the indirect approach; while we keep a watchful eye on the main military front, the real attack may come around unguarded flanks. The main enemy in our midst is not a Communist fifth column but our own complacency. For too long now we have been the prisoners of illusions as to where we stand vis-à-vis the Russians. There is bland talk of “sacrifice,” but even such obviously necessary things as foreign aid and reciprocal trade agreements are assailed and their purposes distorted by ignorance and apathy. Basically, our programs have been sounds, but true balance has been lacking in crucial areas of our total defense.

While complacency is not justified, optimism can be. Our great inherent advantage is the presence of a massive industrial structure, which can, if we choose, be geared to support a larger and more versatile military establishment than can all the industrial facilities of the USSR. We have huge reserves in both material and human resources. We have the largest industrial plant and the most productive labor force in the world. We can maintain a substantial military effort for many years — one greater than we have mustered for the last few years — and we can do so while still reserving a growing economic strength for other purposes.

The author, William C. Foster, is a vice president of Olin Mathieson Chemical Corp. he was chief US delegate to last year’s Geneva conference on safeguards against surprise attack, and has been Deputy Defense Secretary and ECA Administrator. This article first appeared in Orbis magazine and is reprinted with permission.