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The Strategy Of Survival
A lifelong student of military history and affairs says that nuclear weapons have made the idea of war absurd. And it is precisely when everyone agrees that war is absurd that one gets started.
July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
I want to emphasize that it can be the right thing. In 1944, when we landed in Europe and confronted a German army that was decisively inferior in matériel—totally outclassed in the air, and inferior in every article of equipment, and greatly inferior in ammunition, mobility, and so on—but full of talented officers—it was exactly the right choice. It was correct to go for an attritional style of war, which was reliable and safe and so on, as opposed to trying to outmaneuver and outthink the Germans. But for the U.S. Army today in central Europe, to practice attritional methods against the Soviet Union is a recipe for disaster, because the Soviets are not outgunned; they outgun us. To practice matériel warfare against somebody who’s got enormous matériel superiority means guaranteed defeat. Going to war in the attrition style against the Soviet army is to be more or less in the position of the American tourist who goes to a hotel and whispers to the cashier that he’s paid in dollars and expects a discount. You know he is out of date.
I spent the final week of the semester teaching your book Strategy to my students. They found your meditations on NATO’s central front extremely dispiriting. They could not determine what you thought the United States should do to counter Soviet superiority in tanks and artillery.
My fundamental belief is that the best thing is not to defeat the Soviets at all but to deter war by somehow attempting to restore the legitimacy of nuclear weapons.
If that cannot be done, and you want the military recipe, then you must create a balance in Central Europe by going back to a proper equilibrium between defense and offense. That would mean redeploying the existing forces, which are basically battle forces, armored and mechanized divisions, and which are now strung out along the border and acting as very heavily armed frontier guards. We should pull them back a hundred kilometers so that they can become a concentrated mailed fist, ready to counterpunch. Between them and the frontier, the first hundred kilometers, you’d have to have a defended belt, not a belt defended with armored or mechanized divisions but rather one modeled on the very ideas pushed in recent years by the German left, what they call defensive primacy, a zone that would be occupied by small groups of sapper engineers, who would build obstacles, and by local groups, some home guard militia-type units with a few active units operating antitank weapons. A lot of barriers, obstacles, fortifications, and so on. The momentum of a Soviet armored offensive would be absorbed by this zone, which would have no rigid wall in it but would be persistently defended, so that you could never really break through to achieve the high-speed, unresisted exploitation that makes armor so dangerous. And behind that you have the battle forces for counterattack.
Your book suggests that you have little confidence in the ability of American air attack to interdict Soviet echelons.
I think that tactical air power will be a tremendous disappointment in going behind the lines to take on targets there. Once you find the targets, they are going to be moving armored forces, and they’re going to be very heavily defended by antiaircraft defenses. But once the Soviets have invaded, penetrated the belt, and left behind a fixed infrastructure of their defenses, and only have their mobile antiaircraft weapons, and once you’re getting hundreds of radio reports saying just where they are, aircraft can attack much more effectively; there is a synergism. The one thing you do not get under this scheme is forward defense, preclusive defense, which means that there will be penetration past the frontier and damage to German society. This is inevitable once you give up effective deterrence—that is, nuclear deterrence. Conventional deterrence is a myth. You might say that the whole history of war is the history of the failures of conventional deterrence. You may think that you have enough strength to deter somebody because you feel that he will be defeated, but he can always estimate matters quite differently. And often he is right.
The Washington Post recently compared the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with the disastrous naval-limitation talks in the 1920s. What do you think?
The consequences of the INF treaty are much more contextual than specific. If the President had said, “Look, fellows, these particular nuclear weapons are very different from all other nuclear weapons. We deployed them under a specific deal whereby we said we’d undeploy them if the Soviets agreed to scrap these categories of weapons. Well, the Soviets did agree to scrap, so now we have undeployed them and withdrawn them.” But he didn’t say that at all. What was said was that nuclear weapons are very wicked, and now we’ve succeeded in getting rid of this particular group, and we’re eagerly pursuing the reduction of the next lot and the next lot. You see the political leadership delegitimizing the very structure that has maintained the peace for these last forty years.