Attitudes toward arms-control measures are having a strong influence on US military posture and strategy planning. A case in point is the belief that the manned bomber is essentially a first-strike, and hence destabilizing, weapon system. Whether this is actually true has thus far not been publicly examined in the full context of national policy. Here this question is analyzed by a knowledgeable Air Force thinker.
This article was prepared with assistance from the Committee of National Security Policy Research of the Social Science Research Council. Observations are those of the author and should not be construed as policies of the United States Air Force, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or the Department of Defense.
A bibliography compiled by the Army Library lists more than 300 published books and articles on arms control for the years 1960-61. Regardless of progress or the lack of it in negotiating international arms-control proposals, there has been, and continues to be, a strong influence on US strategy and doctrine as a result of certain unilateral measures justified in terms of arms control.
The reduced priority given to the development of manned aerospace craft is the prime case in point. The reasoning behind the deprecation of military aircraft and manned space vehicles is rather complicated, even esoteric, and deserves a critical analysis.
Most arms-control advocates stress the desirability of weapon systems which, in themselves, do not threaten the enemy with surprise attack. They divide strategic weapon systems into two general classes: first-strike weapons and second-strike weapons. They reason that first-strike weapons threaten surprise attack and are provocative, thus creating an unstable military environment.
Second-strike weapons, in their view, are those which can survive a surprise attack and are therefore non-provocative, thereby tending to stabilize the military environment.
Strategic bombers have been placed in the category of first-strike, destabilizing weapons. And since fighters, too, are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, just about all high-performance military aircraft are labeled as provocative and “destabilizing.” This reasoning may well have been responsible for curtailment of the USAF-recommended B-70 program, not to mention the USAF space program.
The stabilizing kinds of strategic weapons are the hardened ICBMs, such as the solid-propellant Minutemen buried in concrete silos, and the submarine-launched Polaris IRBMs. These weapons, it is argued, can survive a first strike and be deliberately and carefully launched with little danger of some uncalculated response on our part.
One of the best analyses of this’ thesis and of the arms-control and disarmament philosophy of the day has been made by J. David Singer1 who describes the distinction between weapon systems designed to win a war and those designed to deter. These distinctions are repeated in study after study until they have become axiomatic in arms-control doctrine. As might be expected, the arguments are based upon which weapon systems and deployments are in the first- or second-strike categories.
A weakness in this rationale is that it implicitly assumes that the provocative effect of armaments can he considered in a political vacuum. Many arguments have been waged over whether armaments cause tensions or tensions cause armaments. More likely, there is a little of each. So it is an oversimplification to assume that the political effects of armaments can be judged in isolation from the existing political environment. Yet this is what is attempted in the effort to achieve a nonprovocative military posture. As Robert W. Bowie wrote, it is “futile to try to regulate or reduce military forces separately from their underlying political causes.”2 The fact that Soviet doctrine preaches the communization of the world, while ours professes our desire to remain simply free, and to promote peace and human welfare, does not seem always to be taken into account. In this school of reasoning, the purposes of the armaments are intrinsically built into them, and are unrelated to their environment.
Singer notes that some believe it possible to “sacrifice certain types of win-the-war capability” in weapons in order to achieve deterrence with least provocation. Deterrent capability is enhanced, they contend, by doing whatever is possible to make our military posture look like a retaliatory one only, thus avoiding “weapons systems and doctrines which are inherently provocative.”
In this sort of reasoning, there is much agreement that piloted aircraft (and the same reasoning would apply for future manned spacecraft) are “inherently provocative” or destabilizing. This theme, too, has been repeated like a litany. First, it is presumed that strategic aircraft will largely be destroyed on the ground by enemy ICBMs. Thus, goes the logic, bombers are less effective as second-strike or retaliatory weapons than as first-strike, surprise-attack weapons. They must be used early in order to be useful at all. Knowing this, the USSR might feel compelled to preempt the first strike herself. As Thomas C. Schelling puts it, “Too great a capacity to strike him by surprise may induce him to strike first.”3 Thus by their mere existence bombers invite attack. Plausible as this argument sounds, it is based upon fallacies.
First of all, in a tense international situation, a good proportion of our bombers would be on air alert and thus immune from a first strike. Wars do not occur like magic or from a whim. There must be some sort of strategic buildup, and many bombers would be launched when war seems probable. Immediately one brings to mind the attack on Pearl Harbor, where our aircraft were caught on the ground. Could not this happen again? The answer is an unequivocal “no.” We had no doctrine of airborne alert at Pearl Harbor in 1941 as we do today. If an enemy strategic buildup such as happened before the surprise attack on Hawaii should occur today, our bombers would take off. Tactical surprise as on the morning of December 7, in view of our highly effective radar-warning systems, would be most unlikely. So when war seems imminent, most of our bombers would be in the air. In the air, bombers are less vulnerable than any other strategic weapons, including Polaris submarines.
Secondly, almost all the remaining operational bombers would be placed on a fifteen-minute ground alert which would permit them to become airborne before any ICBMs could strike them. Thus, with air and ground alerts backed up by a reliable warning system, bombers can become well-nigh invulnerable.
Has it been overlooked by those who classify bombers as destabilizing that an airborne bomber is completely protected against enemy ICBMs while a well targeted ICBM site, no matter how hard, is vulnerable to some degree? A 100-megaton Soviet warhead accurately delivered might do incalculable damage to a Minuteman installation, but its chances of damaging a bomber in the air are indeed remote.
Airfields would, no doubt, be badly damaged by enemy attack because of their “soft” and well known locations, and the few remaining grounded aircraft would probably be destroyed. Is this why these writers brand all bombers as vulnerable? If so, this would appear to be an unwarranted generalization.
Nonoperational ICBMs will not be in silos, but in repair shops as soft as airfields. Moreover, an armed and fueled airborne bomber does not require survival of its soft home base. The bombers can attack and then land at any undestroyed base. If necessary, they can crash-land once they have performed their mission. ICBM boosters don’t come back to their silos either.
The need for quick reaction by the winged military aircraft also has disturbed many arms-control analysts. When emphasis is placed upon quick reaction to an emergency, they argue, the chances rise for mistakes and misunderstandings. Hence, it is possible that some commander below presidential level, even a pilot, might authorize the expenditure of nuclear weapons. They conclude that the dreaded nuclear war might begin through some stupid human error because of the haste required to protect the aircraft by getting it airborne.
On the other hand, a hardened ICBM need not be launched in a hurry. It could withstand the first blow and be launched only when it was absolutely certain that a nuclear war had begun and the clear word had been received from the President to counterattack. Human error is believed to be less likely when operating in this deliberate, purely retaliatory manner.
This thesis ignores the fact that the scrambling of bombers in an emergency does not cause them to be less deliberate about attacking the enemy. The controls on the airborne nuclear weapons are just as positive and tight as are the controls on an ICBM in a silo. Why are so many people so unsure of this?
The thought that devastating nuclear war could happen as a result of a careless pilot or crazed commander making the ultimate decision has been dramatized in several novels and movies. Perhaps this has influenced some strategists inadvisedly. One such story depicts the end of the world, all caused by an ensign from the Sixth Fleet firing an air defense nuclear rocket from his fighter at an airborne snooper. The rocket misses its quarry and detonates in a town. From then on the hostilities escalate until almost every nuclear weapon in the world is exploded. The impossible result is that all of mankind expires. Another such story relates how a demented SAC wing commander decides to start the war singlehanded and sends his strategic bombers off to attack Russia. Such distorted images of military pilots have probably done more harm to the Air Force than any so-called interservice rivalry. Convincing as these tales are, one must evaluate the substance of the stories for what it is—pure fiction. Nevertheless, such yarns have had considerable influence in justifying the dogma that nuclear-armed aircraft are destabilizing weapons.
If one postulates a whole string of improbable events it is then conceivable that an individual in the chain of command could actually explode a nuclear weapon. But the probability of this happening under the tight controls established by the Atomic Energy Commission, the Defense Atomic Support Agency, and the United States Air Force is remote indeed. Human error, of course, is always with us, but the chances of a nuclear bomb going off accidentally or by a deliberate criminal act is less than that the Empire State Building will collapse because one of the builders made a mistake on the grade of the structural steel.
We don’t worry about the collapse of the Empire State Building nor of other steel-girdered office buildings where many of us confidently spend our working days. We know that many able people check and cross-check the quality of the materials used in these buildings and the chances for error are minuscule. So, too, are nuclear weapons handled and controlled by many able and responsible people, each checking on the work of the others. This continual multiple checking is termed “positive” control, for indeed it is as positive as any human activity of this sort can be.
Nuclear-armed bombers contain crews of highly reliable, carefully selected men. No single individual can drop a bomb. In fact, the entire crew is required to get the bomber to its target and to accurately release its weapon. It is inconceivable that all of these men would agree to a criminal, war-starting mission. And as for the nuclear-armed fighter with one pilot, these aircraft never will be permitted off the ground with their “shape” until presidential orders have been received and verified.
But getting back to the matter of stabilizing and destabilizing weapons, the presumably more “stable” ICBMs must likewise be triggered by people. A human crew will perform the final actions, whether in a buried concrete command post or in an airborne bomber. So it is difficult to distinguish between the stabilizing and the destabilizing weapon on this score. Human error in the airplane would be no more nor no less likely than human error at the ICBM launching site.
If one ponders the factor of reaction time as a destabilizing influence, the airplane seems to be somewhat safer than the missile. Once the missile is launched, it is fully committed and will explode on or near its target within thirty minutes or so. Nothing can bring it back or alter its course. Its guidance is self-contained to prevent enemy jamming. So there can be no second thoughts once the ICBM is launched.
Every TV viewer of spaceflights is aware, of course, that a radio mechanism can be installed in a missile to destroy it in case it goes astray. The space fan is also aware that all space launchings, which usually use military boosters, are not completely reliable. So it is conceivable that an ICBM launched in time of war could be destroyed if something went wrong. This happened to at least one of the Dominic space shots of our 1962 test series. Essentially, then, the options for missile firing are just two—go or no-go.
The bomber, however, is controlled by human intelligence right up to the moment the nuclear bomb or standoff missile is released. There are many options available to this weapon system. It can be recalled to its home base by radio command. or it can alter its course. If the target should not be where it was believed to be, it can search for it elsewhere. The bomber can “see” what it is doing, either visually or electronically, and more likely avoid terrible mistakes or gross errors which a blind missile might make. Moreover, once having released its weapon, the bomber can evaluate the results of its mission and obviate over-killing a target with multiple bursts based upon the statistical probabilities that control long-range missile strategy.
One presumed drawback to a bomber strategy is the slow time of flight as compared to a missile. Some argue that this slow delivery time is what consigns the bomber to a first-strike category, that it would have to get started before the other side was aware that a decision for war had been made. But in our hands, since our political policy is to withstand the first blow no matter how we are armed, the slowness of the bomber is not particularly significant. As a second-strike weapon, the bomber will reach and destroy enemy launch pads long before a second enemy missile can be wheeled into place and the countdown completed for a second-wave assault. Considering this, it would seem that a nuclear bomber might more accurately be categorized as a second-strike weapon, if such categorization is feasible at all.
Past disarmament conferences, beginning with The Hague Conference of 1898, up through the London and Washington Conferences of the 1920s and the Geneva Conference of the early 1930s, have filled volumes with debate over definitions of offensive and defensive weapons. It was frequently suggested by disarmament advocates of those days that defensive weapons might be moral as opposed to the immorality of offensive weapons, and hence only offensive weapons should be eliminated. This rationale broke down when it became obvious after interminable discussions between conference delegates that the difference between offensive and defensive weapons simply could not be determined.4 Disarmament negotiators reluctantly concluded that almost any weapon could be used either offensively or defensively. They finally came to realize that the intent of the man behind the weapon cannot be transferred to the weapon itself. The purpose and manner of employment of a weapon is not built into a weapon to the exclusion of other uses it might be put to. A revolver in the hands of a thief is offensive; in the hands of a policeman, it is defensive.
It is true that every weapon is designed with some idea in mind of how it will be used. A jet interceptor fighter, for example, is a highly specialized machine for shooting down invading bombers. But in a pinch, it could also be used to attack ground targets. However, whether an act is defensive or offensive is related to events, purposes, and interpretations. In one circumstance the jet interceptor’s shooting down of a bomber could be considered defensive; in another circumstance, precisely the same act could be regarded as offensive. The second circumstance might occur, for example, with a bomber lost on a peaceful training mission.
Has the lesson that offensive and defensive weapons cannot be clearly differentiated been fully considered by the new crop of strategic scholars? The stabilizing/destabilizing arguments seem to be much in the same vein. Any long-range missile or aircraft can be employed either as a first- or second-strike weapon, offensively or defensively, and thereby be either stabilizing or destabilizing. The intentions and actions of the governments involved will more likely determine whether a weapon is used in a first or second strike. Moreover, the stability of the military environment will be established primarily by political decisions rather than by the kinds of weapons employed.
The long-range ballistic missile with a thermonuclear warhead has added a new dimension to warfare, but it has not simplified it. Instead, this weapon has complicated the job of national defense. As the advent of artillery added a new branch to armies in the sixteenth century, so has the missile added a new branch to modern air forces. The missile can do many things that a bomber cannot, but the converse is likewise true.
The arguments to illustrate the destabilizing nature of bombers have gained wide credibility. Such is the conclusion found in numerous erudite scientific studies and published works. Yet rarely is a military author associated with such literature. Professional military inputs are strangely missing. Moreover, the facts of recent history clearly refute these conclusions. When the nuclear bomber in the United States hands dominated the military scene from 1945 to 1957, few people talked about its provocative nature. The Soviets, in the face of our obvious nuclear bomber superiority, managed to remain relatively unprovoked. In fact they must have trusted our inherently peaceful nature to risk provoking us at Berlin in 1948, Korea in 1950, Vietnam in 1954, and Hungary in 1956.
Only when the Soviets gained a significant long-range ballistic missile capability around 1957, did the military environment become stabilized. From this it might be argued that strategic nuclear missiles are more provocative than bombers, but it would be more accurate to note who owns the missiles and what that country’s intentions might be. These political considerations determine the major conditions of the military environment.
In the final analysis, we all want war to be deterred. But a balanced force of missiles and bombers in the arsenal of the United States will provide the greatest assurance of military success should deterrence fail. Each weapon system complements the other. And with this kind of force, because the probabilities of military success are higher, deterrence is less likely to fail.
1. p. 415, The Centennial Review, Vol. V, No. 4, Fall 1961.
2. Donald C. Brennan, ed. Arms Control, Disarmament, and National Security, George Braziller, New York, 1961, p. 43.
3. “The Retarded Science of International Strategy,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 1960.
4. Marion W. Boggs, “Attempts to Define and Limit ‘Aggressive’ Armaments in Diplomacy and Strategy”; University of Missouri, Columbia, Mo., 1941.
General Smith, now a Special Assistant for Arms Control to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a well known writer on militaryaffairs and the author of the 1955 book U. S. Military Doctrine. Before his present assignment he commanded an air defense division at Stewart AFB, N. Y. In World War II he commanded a B-17 group in England. His postwarassignments have included staff work on the Operations Coordinating Board in Washington and commanding air divisions in Saudi Arabia and on Okinawa. He is a frequent contributor to this magazine. His latest offering, “Toward More Service Pride,” appeared in the July 1962 issue.