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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
The reason cruise missiles are so interesting is that they don’t actually fly in the air; they fly so low that they cannot be dealt with as air vehicles at all. The same quality that enables them to fly really close to the ground gives them extreme precision. They actually don’t know where they are; they follow a stored map, so that you can have very high precision. Now a cruise missile is flying at a maximum of 250 or 350 knots, so all this means that it can be shot down, and this is one of its chief advantages. If an enemy wants to defend himself against a cruise missile, he can. It’s not like defending yourself against ballistic missiles, where you basically might want to give up. We did not, for many years, even try to stop ballistic missiles, because they descend upon you from space at very high speeds and are a very small target. Well, cruise missiles are very small and can be made from composites, so that they have very small cross sections, but you know, you can even see them if you have a tracker plane. So you are forcing someone who has spent a lot of money on air defense at high, medium, and low altitudes to also acquire an ultra-low-altitude air terminal defense system, and thus the vulnerability of the cruise missile attracts a defense effort against it, and the United States has a systematic advantage.
Your adversary doesn’t know when you’re coming, and because a cruise missile doesn’t fly in the sky, a defense against it cannot be centralized. If your enemy wants to protect a bridge, he has to defend that bridge. He needs a ring of radar-controlled antiaircraft guns, and he can only protect that one bridge; he cannot protect two bridges with the same ring, because cruise missiles come in so low that you only see them at the last minute, and you can’t see a few miles over and protect another bridge with the same weapons. So the ultimate culminating point of effectiveness is when a weapon forces an enemy to divert resources from offense to defense.
If the cruise missile exploits the Russian propensity to invest in labor-intensive systems to deter air attack, and therefore turns an enemy strength into a weakness, is there an American cultural propensity that could be exploited by an enemy in turn? The Russians, for example, were very impressed by their last foe and may be said to have spent immense sums to turn themselves into Germans who could invade France in 1940. They have succeeded admirably. Is there some lesson we have learned too well, which could be turned against us?
What inevitably happens is that one has a war and during that war various things happen: old forms of war go down and new forms come up, as battleships went down during the Second World War and carriers came up. Then, however, the people in command of that new form of war—carrier admirals, mechanized infantry generals, and pilots in command of tactical air power—remain in control during all the decades of peace, while more changes of technology, tactics, and modalities supervene. Forty years have passed since the Second World War, yet carrier admirals continue to protect the form of war that was validated forty years ago but which has been overtaken by events. And that is the problem. That is why you have to have the intervention of civilian authority, in order to redirect the military institution to the current realities, because otherwise the military institution merely perpetuates the victorious instruments and organization of the last war.
These are our vices, and not ours alone. Do you think we have any peculiar virtues, or potential virtues, in the sphere of war?
Yes. America remains the freest society in the world, not only because of the absence of police control but in the sense that more Americans are willing to spend more of their time totally rethinking and reevaluating what they’re doing and how they’re doing. They’re willing to move thousands of miles to change jobs; no other society is quite like this. This is the least rigid society. This brings many problems, because it is a rootless society, an alienated society, but it is also a society with tremendous advantages. One of them is free-floating creativity and innovation. Yankee ingenuity writ large. If—and this is a truly huge “if"—we were essentially able to disestablish the very slow, rigid, infinitely inert and bureaucratic acquisition system, we could have a tremendous advantage in research and development. I’m not talking here about some magic innovations but just general creativity of the sort that is manifested in areas that are not bureaucratically controlled.
It was not IBM that innovated massively with the micro-computers that fed the home computer revolution; it was a peripheral mass of people who did it, exploiting environmental advantages present in American society that the Japanese, the Germans, and the French do not have. If we are somehow able to bypass the Pentagon’s bureaucratized research and development apparatus, which forces resources into incremental improvements of existing weapon configurations because they’re the favorite cavalry of the cavalry generals and the admirals, we ought to be able to recover.
When you see a documentary of the Second World War and you see the most banal images of, let’s say, American forces advancing, you see tank transporters, fuel tankers, half-tracks, bulldozers, tanks, tank destroyers. All these were improvised, almost overnight. There was a proliferation of equipment that was workable, practical, ingenious, innovative. That was the genuine expression of the inherent superiority of American society.